ANDREW BEYER

In my system of speed handicapping, a horse who earns a figure of 120 is a potential champion. A horse who runs regularly in the mid-to-upper 120s is a superstar in the class of Affirmed or Seattle Slew. But even Secretariat cracked 130 only once. Except under the most freakish circumstances, thoroughbreds can't run any faster.

Or so it seemed until this summer, when an American racehorse ran figures of 133 and 132 in consecutive races. The feat is unprecedented in the two decades I have been making these calculations.

It is no exaggeration to declare Groovy the fastest horse in the world and one of the best sprinters of all time.

A year ago, Groovy had a more dubious distinction; he had been the worst-managed horse in the country. The colt easily could have been wrecked if trainer Jose Martin hadn't taken charge of him when he did.

Ever since he made his racing debut as a 2-year-old in the fall of 1985, Groovy has displayed brilliant speed, limited stamina. But owners John Ballis and Theodore Kruckle wanted a classic horse, not a sprinter. When Groovy kept failing in distance races, the owners wouldn't get the message. Instead, they would fire the trainer.

Even after Groovy virtually collapsed and lost the Kentucky Derby by 50 lengths, the owners entered him in the Preakness (where he finished next-to-last) and then fired another trainer. When they hired Martin, he was Groovy's sixth trainer in a 12-race career.

Martin is a top horseman, and he could draw some conclusions from Groovy's record to that point: two for two at six furlongs, zero for 10 at longer distances. And he could also see that this was the kind of headstrong speedball who couldn't be made to conserve his energy.

"He's got so much natural speed," Martin marveled. "In the mornings, you can stand up on him and get him to gallop, but whenever you sit on him, he'll go in 22 and 44 {seconds}, and he'll do it on his own."

Martin finally gave Groovy the chance to concentrate on sprinting, and the colt responded with a string of victories that included a rout of previously unbeaten Phone Trick. He looked like a cinch to win the Eclipse Award until he was upset as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

But after that defeat, and another year-end loss, Martin discovered that Groovy had bone chips in a knee. "He'd never gone sore," the trainer said, "so we never realized it."

Groovy underwent an operation to remove the chips and was sidelined for seven months. He grew and gained weight during that time, and when he returned to action, the 4-year-old Groovy was a much better racehorse than even the 3-year-old Groovy had been.

He made his debut on the day of the Belmont Stakes against two of the East's best sprinters, Love That Mac and King's Swan, and blew them away, running six furlongs in 1:08 2/5 over a track that was not especially fast. Two weeks later, in the True North Handicap, he ran a quarter-mile in :22, the half-mile in :44 and finished six furlongs in a track-record 1:07 4/5. (One of the horses he trounced that day, Sun Master, came to Maryland a week later and barely missed Pimlico's six-furlong track record.)

Groovy then turned in a subpar performance (for him), winning a stake at Finger Lakes in a photo finish; even so, he set another track record, running six furlongs in 1:09.

Martin intends to run Groovy in the Tom Fool Handicap at Belmont on Saturday and has mapped out a tentative schedule to prepare him for his main objective, the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint. He wants to avoid the mistakes of last year and keep the colt in six- and seven-furlong races.

"You can't have a sprinter and a distance horse at the same time, and my game plan is to keep him in sprints," Martin said. Will the owners interfere? Is Martin the boss? The trainer seemed comfortable with the subject. "You're the boss as long as you keep winning," he said.

Racing fans can only hope Martin will be able to stick to his plans. Even though Groovy is a sprinter, and will never attain the prominence or glamor of a top distance runner, he could have a phenomenal campaign this year -- if the people in charge don't overreach.