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 4� lengths and the one-mile Gotham Stakes by three quarters of a length. Groovy wound up a close third in the 1?-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?"