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Scott Ostler

If Distance Is Right, Everything's Groovy

November 19, 1987|Scott Ostler

Gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell you a horsey story that I think you'll find both charming and inspirational. Whataya mean, why can't you just wait for the TV movie? By then, the horse will be at stud.

What's at stud ? Ask your parents.

And put down those jelly doughnuts, boys and girls. There's a junk-food lesson in this story, too.

The horse is a big, happy, chestnut colt named Groovy. He was born in Texas to racehorse parents, with grandparents like Buckpasser and Northern Dancer. So it was expected that Groovy would be a racer, too, although his mom and dad didn't push him.

But as a racehorse, Groovy was a dog. Couldn't race a lick, although he tried real hard.

Then something happened, and now Groovy is the fastest racehorse in the world, one of the fastest of all time, and he is one of the stars of the Breeders' Cup program Saturday at Hollywood Park. He'll run in the Sprint.

Groovy is a candidate for Horse of the Year. He has his own public relations firm, armed guards and knee doctors.

Why did I skip ahead like that and spoil the ending? Because this is a newspaper story, kids, and I need to pull in the readers, who are generally too impatient to wait till the end to find out what happens.

Now, back to the beginning. When he started racing, Groovy would do this: He would smoke out of the gate, run three-quarters of a mile like a cheetah, then fade like a cheap shirt.

What would this seem to indicate, boys and girls? Perhaps that this horse was not a long-hauler? That he is a dragster, not an Indy car? Fortunately for our hero, it took only seven trainer changes before someone figured this out.

Groovy's people ran the poor steed in the 1-mile Kentucky Derby and he almost became the first horse in Derby history to get lapped. He finished 49 3/4 lengths behind the winner.

He got embarrassed in the Preakness, too. A month later he was handed over to his eighth trainer, New York-based Jose Martin, no relation to Billy.

Jose knew right off what had to be done. Since Groovy runs very fast for a while, then very slow, Martin figured the horse would do well in shorter races.

"I knew he was a good horse," Martin says. "When he turned for home, he died. He took a pretty good pounding. He couldn't go distance. The option was to make him the best sprinter in the country, and I think we've done a pretty good job."

Pretty good? Since Martin took over, the horse has run 13 races and won 10, including the last 6 in a row.

Martin did more than just stick the horse in the right races. He had to undo three years of psychological and nutritional damage inflicted by the game of musical trainers.

"He had so many trainers before, his mind was confused," Martin says.

Groovy also had to overcome a few injuries and get better from a knee operation a year ago to remove a bone chip. While he was getting better, he also got stronger and faster, maybe because he was eating better.

One previous trainer would feed Groovy things like raspberry jelly doughnuts, ham sandwiches, pickles and pecans.

"That was stupid," Jose Martin says, becoming very angry. "He's a racehorse and should be treated like one. Doughnuts and coffee and ham-and-egg sandwiches! It's way out of line for a horse of his caliber to be treated like that."

How should he be treated? In New York, Martin has armed security cops guarding Groovy 24 hours a day. Martin doesn't have to do that in Los Angeles, because Groovy is not equipped with a stereo cassette deck.

If he wins Saturday, Groovy has a chance to be named Horse of the Year, which is a very big award, a four-legged Heisman. No pure sprinter has ever won that award, so Groovy's owners have hired a public relations firm to make the voters aware of their horse.

Just like for a Heisman Trophy candidate, there are Groovy press packets and Groovy buttons. I bet my Groovy T-shirt is in the mail.

Groovy's jockey, Angel Cordero, who has been riding for 27 years, says: "Groovy's the fastest thing I ever put my (seat) on. . . . He doesn't run like other fast horses. They move their head. He's very smooth. He seems like he's galloping. He's naturally fast. He's like a ball of fire. Riding him is like a dream.

"The only problem with him, he wants to go so fast, he wants to fly all the time in the mornings (workouts). He's very strong, and I can't slow him down."

Should Groovy be Horse of the Year, kids?

Cordero thinks so and explains his position by using what we call sports analogies.

"He's the only horse that's undefeated," Cordero says. "Others race for a while, then rest up, hoping to take the batting title while sitting on the bench. He's out there punching all 15 rounds. To be Horse of the Year, you should run all year. He went to every dance he was supposed to go to; he never backed off from anybody."

How will Cordero race Groovy Saturday?

"Most of the time you hold him (back)," Cordero says. "The Breeder's Cup is for all the marbles. We'll just go."

The moral to this story, boys and girls, is that we can all be champions if we find what we do best.

Now if Groovy wins Saturday, he'll probably be retired to stud soon and will live happily ever after.

Do horses standing at stud get jelly doughnuts?

I'm not sure, kid. Ask your dad.

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