Sprint great Groovy deserving of a Hall of Fame nod

July 11th, 2024

The summer racing season at Saratoga brings with it some annual rituals, including the induction of this year’s Hall of Fame class in early August. But not everyone is happy.

A vocal segment of racing fandom and media were disappointed to learn this spring that California-based sprint star Kona Gold was again bypassed for induction by the Hall of Fame electorate. The latest rejection perhaps stung more than usual as this year marks the 30th anniversary of Kona Gold’s birth.

Kona Gold’s inability to get over the threshold underscores something worth noticing. Sprint specialists, especially of the male variety, have had an incredibly difficult time over the decades in getting Hall of Fame recognition.

A lot of prominent males who happened to be voted a sprint title or two have made the Hall of Fame, but not specifically for their success in races under a mile. Examples include Tom Fool, Bold Ruler, Dr. Fager, Ack Ack, Forego, and Precisionist. Indeed, a quick glance at the Hall of Fame roster suggests Roseben and Housebuster are the only pure male sprinters with plaques in Saratoga Springs. 

In contrast, female sprinters are far more represented. Among these are Pan Zareta, Myrtlewood, Affectionately, Ta Wee, My Juliet, Safely Kept, and Xtra Heat.

I’ll leave to others more passionate about Kona Gold’s candidacy to debate his merits, pro or con. I only wish there was as much consternation expressed over the absence from the Hall of Fame another star sprinter that came along not many years before Kona Gold.

Groovy, arguably the most significant Texas-bred since the days of King Ranch, was a powerhouse. When he was allowed to specialize at what he did best, that is. His natural asset, speed, was largely wasted during the first nine months of his career as various owners and trainers attempted to make him into something he was not.

Although he earned several Grade 1 placings during this span in races like the Futurity, Champagne, and Wood Memorial, Groovy’s early record is very much clouded by pacesetting retreats in top-level events like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Kentucky Derby (G1), and Preakness (G1), races in which he did not belong.

Groovy competed three seasons and won 12 times (all stakes) in 26 starts, but a more nuanced analysis of his record puts it in a more favorable light. In actual sprints under a mile, he won 12 of 18 starts and placed second three times. 

Competing in an era when most sprints were not as highly graded as they would eventually become, Groovy’s record should be judged by additional factors. The company he kept would be one, and in that he was all class.

As a three-year-old in 1986, Groovy earned several important wins facing older horses. In the Tom Fool (G2) at Belmont Park in July, Groovy walloped odds-on favorite Phone Trick by 6 1/4 lengths. Although getting a notable weight concession (12 pounds in actual weight and five pounds on the Jockey Club scale), Groovy’s achievement was astounding as the freakish California-based Phone Trick entered the Tom Fool with a 9-for-9 mark. Groovy would be the only horse Phone Trick ever lost to.

In his next start, the Forego H. (G2) at Saratoga, Groovy again toppled the seemingly unconquerable by leading gate-to-wire over Turkoman, the eventual champion older male. Although Turkoman’s forte was longer races at nine furlongs and beyond, the deep closer was legitimately favored in the Forego having won all three of his prior starts going seven furlongs or less. That included a remarkable come-from-behind win in the six-furlong Tallahassee H. at Hialeah, in which he blitzed the distance in near-record time of 1:08 1/5.

Groovy also took his show west that fall, beating older horses again in the Ancient Title H. at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. That race achieved top-level status much later and was one that Kona Gold would also win.

As a four-year-old in 1987, Groovy began the season winning his first six starts in a fashion that saw him enter Horse of the Year discussion. Those were the Roseben H. (G3), True North H. (G2), Finger Lakes Breeders’ Cup, Tom Fool, Forego, and Vosburgh (G1), the latter being the only Grade 1 win of his career.

Several of these efforts in particular stand out. Andrew Beyer revealed that Groovy earned consecutive Beyer Speed Figures of 131 and 134 in the Roseben and True North (a track record performance), the first and perhaps last time a horse ever earned Beyer figures above 130 in consecutive races.

Groovy’s weight carrying prowess was also on display that season. In the Tom Fool, he toted 128 pounds to a 6 1/2-length score over a rival carrying seven pounds less. His margin of victory in the Forego was only 1 1/4 lengths, but he did it under a 132-pound impost and conceded the runner-up 19 pounds.

While the highs of Groovy’s career speak for themselves, the lows of his sprint career are perhaps what most people remember about him, if they do at all. Namely his failure to win the division’s signature event, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), on two occasions. The first as a 2-5 favorite at Santa Anita in 1986, and then a year later as a 4-5 favorite at Hollywood Park. Even Kona Gold managed to win the Sprint once in five attempts.

The 1986 Sprint was Groovy’s 12th start of his campaign, and he was simply outrun to the lead by eventual winner Smile. But there might have been a kernel of truth to the belief held by some observers that the main track that day was biased in favor of front-running types with inside posts as Groovy finished fourth after breaking from post 9. Evidence he might have been over the top anyway gained credence with a similarly dull effort in the Sport Page H. (G3) at Aqueduct two weeks later, though he was later discovered to have had a bone chip.

In the 1987 Sprint, Groovy was again outrun by the eventual winner, the filly Very Subtle, and was a well-beaten second by four lengths. Simply put, he was second best on the day, but had done enough in the months leading up to it to be honored as the season’s champion sprinter.

Groovy’s credentials stack up well against or exceed those of virtually any other male sprint champion one could deem worthy of including in the Hall of Fame. It is time for the gratuitous, decades-long punishment inflicted on him for losing twice at the Breeders’ Cup to come to an end.