Groovy will come into Saturday's Preakness with two distinctions. He is indisputably the fastest colt in the field, and he is surely the most confused.
In a 10-race career, Groovy has had five trainers. He has had five jockeys. Most of the time, he has been trained to hone his natural speed. Now he is being trained to dull his speed and increase his stamina. And if all of this isn't disorienting enough, Groovy probably is wondering what he's doing in the Preakness at all, after losing the Kentucky Derby by nearly 50 lengths.
What he probably is doing is being ruined. When owners insist on running a bad horse in a classic race, it is usually a harmless exercise in futility. But when they ask a good horse to do something of which he is not capable, a good horse will knock himself out trying.
Groovy is a good horse, endowed with blazing speed. He has had the early lead in every race of his life. "There aren't many horses who could beat him at six or seven furlongs," said Howard Crowell, his latest trainer. "He's going to be real tough going three-quarters of a mile for $1 million in November at the Breeders' Cup Sprint ."
Most owners would be satisfied with this prospect. Theodore Kruckel Jr., a bank president in Franklin Lakes, N.J., bought Groovy as a 2-year-old for $81,000 and quickly recouped his investment when the colt finished second in two major New York stakes.
Earlier this season, he sold half of the colt to John Ballis, a 39-year-old real estate investor from Houston. Groovy rewarded them further by finishing second in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes and the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct. But when he faded to finish third in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial Stakes, it was obvious to everybody that Groovy was not a distance horse. Well, just about everybody. Suddenly, the Groovy saga turned into a soap opera: Trainer Pete Peters blamed jockey Craig Perret for the Wood defeat. The owners replaced Perret with Laffit Pincay Jr. Then they replaced Peters with Crowell. Groovy was headed for a 1 1/4-mile race in Louisville.
Crowell was no stranger to the colt. He runs a farm in Ocala, Fla., where he breaks and trains young horses. He handles horses for both Kruckel and Ballis, and he had worked with Groovy as a 2-year-old.
Crowell appears to be a thoughtful and able horseman, but even if Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons had been reincarnated for the occasion, he would have found the task impossible: Take a horse who has trouble going a mile and get him ready to go 1 1/4 miles -- in two weeks.
There weren't any miracles at Churchill Downs. Groovy showed his customary speed, zipped the first half mile in :45 1/5 and then stopped as if a sniper had shot him with a high-powered rifle. He finished last -- 49 3/4 lengths behind Ferdinand. Even so, he was promptly shipped to Pimlico.
Crowell was asked Monday morning if he had suggested to the owners that Groovy should be running in shorter races, that the Preakness wasn't such a realistic objective. Crowell didn't speak; he didn't so much as blink, but his silence spoke volumes. Clearly, he and Groovy are here because the owners want them to be. All the trainer can do is hope for the best.
Actually, Crowell has some grounds for mustering optimism this week. Groovy has been reunited with Perret, and he worked well for the jockey here, showing a willingness to restrain his speed. "Craig gets along good with him," Crowell said. "Groovy relaxes for him."
Moreover, Pimlico is a track that traditionally favors speed horses. "If any of the Triple Crown races is going to be his race, this is it," Crowell said. And after the Derby, when all the horses who chased Groovy collapsed from the effort, the front-runner is likely to get the lead without so much pressure on Saturday.
But even the most optimal conditions will not enable this colt to win at the Preakness distance; he simply can't go that far. Realistically, the best that Groovy can hope for is not victory, but survival.