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What's a Giacomo?

Racing experts stunned by longshot Derby winner

Posted: Monday, May 09, 2005

 

  Giacomo, left, with jockey Mike Smith up, drives to the finish to win the 131st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 7, 2005, in Louisville, Ky. AP Photo/James Crisp

Giacomo, left, with jockey Mike Smith up, drives to the finish to win the 131st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 7, 2005, in Louisville, Ky.

AP Photo/James Crisp

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Still trying to figure out how Giacomo pulled off the second biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history?

You're not alone.

A day after Giacomo won at odds of 50-1, with Closing Argument second at 72-1, trainer D. Wayne Lukas called Saturday's Derby ''the most bizarre of all.'' Trainer Nick Zito just shrugged and said: ''I'll never figure out this game.''

Just about everyone was taken by surprise. Two people who weren't were Giacomo's trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith.

''We always thought there was room to improve,'' Smith said Sunday morning. ''John never panicked and we just took baby steps until we got him here.''

History shows that horses are able to jump up significantly in the Derby. Witness Dark Star, who upset the great Native Dancer in 1953 at odds of 25-1, or 1992 winner Lil E. Tee at 17-1, or Charismatic in 1999 at 31-1.

Giacomo had won but one race going into the Derby. Shirreffs and Smith, though, saw he was getting better in every race.

In his last start, the gray colt finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, two lengths behind winner Buzzards Bay.

''Although everybody thought it was a bad race, I knew it wasn't,'' Smith said. ''People don't watch after the race. You should have seen him gallop out. He was getting fitter and stronger.

''Then, John said 'OK, now it's time.' He tightened up the screws and he said either he's going to step forward or he ain't — and he did.''

In the glare of hype and hyperbole surrounding the highly regarded 3-year-olds, such as Wood Memorial winner Bellamy Road, Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex and Blue Grass winner Bandini, this subtle improvement was visible only to those closest to him.

What's most surprising about the 131st Derby is not so much that Giacomo won, but the complete disintegration of every top horse in the race.

While Afleet Alex was third, just a length behind the winner, Bellamy Road was seventh — the best finish of Zito's Fab Five — and Bandini was 19th in the first 20-horse field since 1984.

Theories abound as to why this happened, but one that makes perfect sense is preferred by trainer Steve Asmussen, who did not have a Derby horse but won Friday's Kentucky Oaks with Summerly — in a huge upset over Sis City.

''You have horses coming out of six or seven preps that had obviously lesser quality fields with less numbers,'' he said. ''And generally, the spot that they won from was very consistent, on the lead or not far off the lead.

''When you put all the horses that won with that exact style in the same race, and they are going farther, and you saw how much contact is made from horse to horse ... then everything changes.''

On Saturday, the race unfolded in exactly the right manner for Giacomo and in exactly the wrong manner for every high-profile horse. And in the final eighth of a mile, the horse with the fewest amount of problems usually is the one with enough stamina to reach the finish line first.

Which is what happened with Giacomo, and runner-up Closing Argument. Why? Probably because nobody ever thought they had a chance in the first place.

''Three weeks out, you're trying to figure out how to beat particular horses, and nobody is trying to figure out how to beat Giacomo,'' Asmussen said. ''You think Bellamy Road was going to get his trip when everyone was trying to beat him? That's what makes it so tough. The horse that won? Nobody was worried about him, or kept an eye on him, or was trying to beat him. He just picked up the pieces.''

Two weeks from Saturday, the Preakness will determine whether Giacomo's Derby victory was a fluke or the mark of a genuinely improving horse.

Recently, though, horses whose Derby victories seemed an aberration have gone on to win the Preakness and move to the brink of the Triple Crown. Among them were Real Quiet in 1998, Charismatic in '99, War Emblem in '02 and Funny Cide in '03.

Giacomo doesn't have many supporters right now, starting with Lukas, whose Going Wild finished 18th.

''You can chisel this in stone: There will not be a Triple Crown winner,'' he said. ''We got too many good horses that will upset the apple cart. The Preakness will be just as unpredictable. With all respect to the horse, (Giacomo) is beatable. He was beatable all spring.''



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