On the Kentucky Grave of the immortal Domino, the Black Whirlwind of American racing in the 1890s, the simple headstone reads: "Here lies the fleetest runner the American turf has ever known, and one of the gamest and most generous of horses."
The hallmark of the thoroughbred, the most compelling of his qualities and the very symbol of the breed itself always has been and always will be speed. The sport of racing grew from that eternal question: Who has the fastest horse? Even though the best horses are those who have shown they could run the fastest over the classic distances, a special mystique has always attached itself to the fastest sprinter in the land. There have been some bullets in the last 40 years: Tom Fool, White Skies, Decathlon, Ta Wee, Dr. Fager, Forego.
In the grand tradition of Domino, they were the fleetest horses of their day, and this year they are joined by another, a sleek-bodied chestnut colt by the name of Groovy. Last Saturday in the seven-furlong Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park, he raced, as usual, from the gate to the front, opened up a five-length lead 220 yards from home and then held on gamely over a dull, tiring track to win by three quarters of a length. It was Groovy's sixth victory in as many sprint stakes this year and made him a virtual lock to win the Eclipse Award as the nation's champion sprinter. For the past four months Groovy has been the fastest racehorse in the world and some say the fastest sprinter since 1968, when the legendary Dr. Fager blew around the track at Aqueduct like a malevolent wind. "He's the best pure sprinter I've seen in New York in about 20 years," says veteran trainer Philip Johnson.
"He's the Carl Lewis of racehorses," says trainer Leroy Jolley. "The only world-class sprinter in America."
"Groovy's the fastest thing I ever put my ass on," says his regular jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., who has plunked his derriere down on more than 32,000 mounts, including the phenomenally fast Seattle Slew.
Moreover, Groovy's recent achievements have made him a contender for Horse of the Year. Only half an hour after Groovy's Vosburgh triumph and on the same Belmont track, 3-year-old Java Gold, who went off as the heavy favorite to win the mile-and-a-half Jockey Club Gold Cup, lost, shockingly, by 4¾ lengths to Creme Fraiche. A win by Java Gold might have locked up the Horse of the Year trophy; instead, the defeat created a guessing game. Java Gold suffered a bruised foot in Saturday's race, and, says his trainer, Mack Miller, he won't run again this year. Now, if Alysheba, the other chief contender for the Horse of the Year title, wins the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 21, he'll likely get the nod. But if Alysheba loses, trackside speculation has it that Groovy, with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, could well become the first pure sprinter ever named Horse of the Year.
But what's more remarkable is that Groovy got to 1987 at all. That he survived, that he's still alive and running sound after all he has been through, is as much a testament to his mental resilience as to his uncommon physical toughness. His epitaph too could eulogize "one of the gamest and most generous of horses."
Most horses begin their careers running in easy maiden races against other nonwinners and then graduate to more competitive allowance races. Then, if they show the ability, they graduate to stakes races. Groovy skipped grade school and high school and went directly to college: his 25 lifetime starts (of which he has won 12, earning $1,121,956) have all been in stakes races.
Along the way he has gone through more hands than a stray kitten in a schoolyard—eight different trainers in one 16-month stretch—and he was subjected to a campaign that would have ruined most horses. It included a trip to the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby, in which he finished 16th, dead last, beaten by 49¾ lengths, and, two weeks later, to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, in which he finished sixth of seven, beaten by 13¾ lengths. A month later, and none too soon, he came under the care of trainer Jose Martin, who rescued him from the abounding confusion, started running him only in sprints and guided him flawlessly through this championship season. "He went through so much to get where he is today," says one of those eight trainers, Howard Crowell. "He's overcome all human dumbness, and he's still going to be an Eclipse champion."
As if Groovy's early trials on the racecourse weren't damaging enough, controversy and suspicion have shadowed him off the track. The investigative arm of the New York Racing Association continues to try to determine whether Robert Ralph Libutti has been a hidden owner of the colt. Libutti, then known as Robert Presti, was at the center of a 1971 scandal over his alleged hidden ownership of racehorses, including the talented 3-year-old Jim French. A self-described thoroughbred consultant, horse broker and breeder, Libutti is unlicensed to own racehorses and, according to racing officials, has been barred from New York tracks since 1968.
Libutti denies having ever owned Groovy. He says he purchased the colt for his daughter, Edith, at a Florida auction of 2-year-olds in February 1985 and sold him two months later. "I don't own horses," Libutti says. He buys them, he says, as an agent, and sells them. As a paid consultant to the two men who owned Groovy until this August, Libutti also took an active interest in the colt's career. Libutti has a shrewd eye for horses. Jim French was one of the best colts of his generation. And Groovy, as things turned out, has proved to be one of the bargains of the decade.
He was born in Texas, a son of the 1976 Canadian Horse of the Year, Norcliffe, himself a beautifully bred son of Buckpasser out of a Northern Dancer mare. On the day before that February 1985 sale, Groovy rushed through a quarter-mile work in an eye-catching 23[2/5] seconds and attracted Libutti's attention. "I figured I'd have to go to $250,000 to get him," Libutti says. But when the bidding stopped at $81,000, daughter Edith and her Lion Crest Stables owned the horse. Then Lion Crest sold Groovy to one of Libutti's clients, New Jersey banker Ted Kruckel, for $250,000, according to Libutti. And so the colt's strange odyssey began.
Florida trainer Eddie Yowell was the first to have Groovy at a racetrack. "Right from the go, he looked like a real nice horse," Yowell says. "Fast horse. And a pretty horse." But a sick horse, too. "He always had a bad throat, pharyngitis," Yowell says. So he couldn't do much with Groovy.
The revolving door began to turn. Shipped to New York, the colt landed in the barn of Mervin (Magoo) Marks, who trained him briefly. The horse was moved to the barn of trainer Heliodoro Gustines, who had him for all of eight days before Kruckel called and told Gustines to return the horse to Marks. "It was like the comedy hour," Gustines says. Marks had the colt until, after a disagreement with the horse's connections, Groovy was shipped to Saratoga. So Yowell ended up with him again. When Yowell returned to Florida eight weeks later, Kruckel hired Jack Adams.
Despite the parade of trainers and his sickliness, the horse ran well as a 2-year-old, winning his first start, a six-furlong dash at The Meadowlands. It was his lone victory in five starts in 1985, but in each of his four defeats, he took the lead early and then got dusted in the stretch. Groovy was giving off unmistakable signs that he was a sprinter, not a classic horse, and Adams read the signs.
Adams claims Kruckel and Libutti were already talking Kentucky Derby, while he himself urged restraint: "I'd say to them, 'This horse don't want to go too far. He's strictly a sprinter.' " Adams says they would counter that Groovy had the pedigree to go a route and that Adams was training him wrong. "I was telling 'em one thing, and they wanted to hear another," says Adams. "This is one awful nice horse. He just couldn't go on. After seven eighths of a mile, he was flat, he was done."
In November 1985, Groovy was shipped to trainer Howard Crowell at his Ocala, Fla., farm for a winter's rest. It was a long winter, but a short rest. Crowell sent Groovy to Gulfstream Park for the Spectacular Bid Stakes on Jan. 8, the opening day of the meeting. Adams was there to train him, but not for long. After continuing disputes with the owners, he was gone before race day. Kruckel called Kimberly Hardy, who had ridden Groovy in morning workouts for Yowell, and asked her to saddle him for the Spectacular Bid. She agreed. Groovy won the six-furlong sprint by three quarters of a length.
By now, though, the course to Louisville—and the longer demands of the Derby—had been set. In February, Houston real estate developer John Ballis had bought a half interest in the horse from Kruckel for $1 million. Because Kruckel and Ballis were both Libutti clients, making it a sort of in-house sale, Libutti claimed no commission. Obviously, in their quixotic designs on the Triple Crown, they were all looking to make a larger killing. If by some miracle the colt were to win the Derby, he would be worth millions, and the three men would profit handsomely.
Groovy was shipped to New York, where he was placed in the hands of yet another trainer, Petro Peters. He ran three times at Aqueduct, performing well enough to give his owners reason to press on. Though he tired and lost the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes by 4½ lengths and the one-mile Gotham Stakes by three quarters of a length. Groovy wound up a close third in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood Memorial. But the Wood was illusory. Rating kindly for jockey Craig Perret, the colt galloped to what for him was a slow and easy lead—a half in :47[2/5]—and had enough left to stay in the hunt until the end. What would he do in the Derby, where he surely would not get an easy lead? Undaunted, the Groovy train rolled on to Kentucky, though without Peters, out after yet another owner-trainer dispute. No matter. Crowell was brought off the farm to take his place.
"We really thought he was qualified to run in the Derby," says Ballis. "He had run well in the Wood. I'm new in the business. That [the Derby] is the ultimate. That's what we're here for." Libutti thought that if Groovy could be taught to change leads when he ran, reducing fatigue by occasionally alternating the foreleg he led with, it could help him stay longer. And with Groovy's bloodlines, Libutti says, "Why not take a shot? What do you got to lose?"
The answer, of course, is the horse. The Derby is notorious as a graveyard for horses ill-equipped to run in it. Groovy scorched the half mile in 45[1/5] seconds, tying the Derby record for the fastest opening half—and at the far turn he stopped as if he had hit a wall. That seemed to be the end for Groovy. And what a pity it was.
The colt had endeared himself to all who had come to know him as a back-stretch character. This was the horse that ate raspberry jelly-filled donuts; in fact, he so savored them that he whinnied whenever the coffee wagon pulled up to the barn. "He was like a damn dog," said Crowell. "Anything a man would eat, he'd eat. I fed him a ham sandwich one day. And pickles. I fed him pecans. He'd hear you crack a pecan in the shedrow, and he'd nicker for a pecan. One of the smartest horses I've ever been around."
It was a sad sight to see Groovy shipped to the Preakness that spring. It seemed certain that he would run his eyeballs out and then fold his tent on the turn for home. Why did his owners go to the Preakness? "We didn't know what had happened in the Derby," says Ballis. "You just had to throw the race out." In most corners, though, the thinking was that if the Derby hadn't finished him, the Preakness would surely crush whatever spirit was left.
But the gutsy Groovy survived his poor Preakness showing and, a month later, enjoyed a turn of good fortune when Ballis and Kruckel hired Martin to train him. Groovy won his next three sprints and appeared to be on the way to the American sprint championship until, after two losses, X-rays revealed a bone chip in the right knee.
Successful surgery coupled with nearly seven months' rest brought Groovy to 1987 with the wind at his back. His first two races at six furlongs at Belmont were stunning. In the Roseben Handicap on June 6, he won in a fiery 1:08[2/5]; 15 days later, in the True North Handicap, he sprinted to a track record 1:07[4/5]. After winning two more sprints in July, he triumphed in the Forego Handicap at Saratoga by 1¾ lengths under high weight of 132 pounds.
The Forego was his first start under new ownership, the three Preston brothers of Houston—Jack, Art and J.R.—proprietors of the Preston Oil Company and Prestonwood Farm. After the 1986 season Ballis had bought the other half of Groovy from Kruckel for $950,000, giving him sole ownership of the horse. Last summer, as Groovy dashed to one stakes victory after another, the Prestons offered Ballis $4 million for him. Ballis took it reluctantly. At Saratoga, after selling the colt, an emotional Ballis said to Jack Preston, "You know, I love this horse as much as you do."
And so, in the end, Groovy has made money for everybody, and he is no longer a nomad. He has three round-the-clock armed guards who sit in front of his stall in eight-hour shifts. "Costs $10,000 a month." Martin says. "I treat this horse like he was the emperor of Japan. He's unbelievable. I never saw one like this before, and I'll never see another again."
Last week Martin opened a restaurant, which he had renovated, across the street from Belmont Park. He named it Groovys, in honor, of course, of his renovated horse.