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 4� 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 1�-mile Kentucky Derby, in which he finished 16th, dead last, beaten by 49� lengths, and, two weeks later, to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, in which he finished sixth of seven, beaten by 13� 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.