INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- All year long, trainer Jose Martin has had one overriding objective for his brilliant speedster Groovy: the Breeders' Cup. There is no other race in the world in which a sprinter can compete for anything close to its $1 million purse.
But now that the race is imminent, Martin realizes the stakes are even greater than he had imagined. "I think maybe he has a chance to be horse of the year," the trainer said. "We're going to try to make history. For me, that overshadows the Breeders' Cup."
Never before has a pure sprinter won the highest honor in U.S. racing, but the circumstances could be right for Groovy this year. Alysheba probably could lock up the title if he wins the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, but if he fails, his record won't look so great. He will have won only once since the Preakness in May. Java Gold probably blew his chances when he lost his last start; his support is strictly New York-based, anyway. Manila, an ace turf runner, was a contender until an injury ended his career prematurely.
Even if Groovy can't run farther than seven-eighths of a mile, he performs his specialty more brilliantly than any of the country's classic horses perform theirs. He has led all the way to win all six of his starts this year, setting two track records. If he runs smashingly at Hollywood Park Saturday, and Alysheba loses, he'll have the most glittering record in American racing.
Surprisingly, however, many locals question whether Groovy is going to deliver a big performance -- or win at all. They remember last year, when Groovy came to California amidst plenty of hype, went off the 2-to-5 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and finished a tired fourth. Jose Martin remembers that day vividly, too -- and that is why he has managed Groovy this year with the aim of avoiding a similar flop.
"Last year," Martin said, "he'd just had too many races." Groovy ran 14 times as a 3-year-old, including starts in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and other races that were farther than he wanted to go. He was a tired horse when he came to California. Even so, he might have won the Breeders' Cup if his chances hadn't been compromised. He didn't break sharply, and jockey Jose Santos elected to sit back and stalk two other speedsters. "I wouldn't have minded if he'd gone head and head for the lead and lost by 82 lengths," Martin said. "But the way he ran -- that's not the way he wants to do it."
This year, Groovy has done everything his way. He has gone to the front in all of his races, and he has given some performances -- notably a six-furlong victory in 1:07 4/5 at Belmont Park -- that have made him look like one of the fastest horses in the history of the sport. But with only six starts this season, he is still a fresh horse.
The only knock that can be made against Groovy is that he didn't face many horses in New York with sheer speed that could put him under any pressure. He hasn't had to run in sub-:22 opening quarters to get an early lead. Saturday, the situation will be different. He will be facing the filly Pine Tree Lane, who finished second in last year's Breeders' Cup and who has gone to the front in every one of her races this year. But if Groovy can outsprint Pine Tree Lane, he has a chance to run his way into the history books.