Nice guys finish first in humbling Derby

May 10, 2005 3:58 AM

Leo Durocher was wrong.

Nice guys don’t finish last. Not always. At least not in the case of John Shirreffs and Mike Smith.

Aside from the fact that not one so-called expert stumbled onto the Kentucky Derby winner again this year, thanks to the 50-1 shock registered by Giacomo — a California horse — the most fulfilling aspect of the 131st Run for the Roses is that Shirreffs and Smith, two of racing’s most unassuming guys, trained and rode the winner.

Other than that, Giacomo was so far beneath the radar of nearly every selector, they didn’t have him among their top four. I know I didn’t. The Derby could be run again tomorrow and I still couldn’t pick him. Of the 19 selectors in the Daily Racing Form, only one listed Giacomo, and barely, at fourth.

He had won only a maiden race from seven starts, although he had nickeled and dimed his way to earnings of $226,716 through two seconds, two thirds and a fourth behind 30-1 shot Buzzards Bay in the much maligned Santa Anita Derby. Thus Giacomo gained the reputation as a chronic hanger, due to five consecutive close-but-no-cigar finishes.

Southern California handicappers had seen enough of Giacomo and his belated tendencies to dismiss him as a serious Kentucky Derby contender, even though he was 7-2 in both the San Felipe Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby.

It was vindication for Shirreffs, a Marine vet who served in Vietnam and turned to racing after his discharge, doing an abrupt about-face from a planned trip to Hawaii where he was bent on becoming a surfer.

Shirreffs, who turns 60 on June 1, was concerned he might have to give up training in 2000 after his principal owner, Marshall Naify, died. "I might have to become a bartender," he told me then at his Hollywood Park headquarters, only half-kidding.

Fortunately, he stayed in the game, although the most diligent of paparazzi would have a tough time catching a glimpse of him in public. Homeless guys have better wardrobes. He is not a subscriber to GQ. Shirreff’s idea of natty is a rumpled sports coat, obligatory baseball cap, dockers and footwear concealed by backstretch straw and manure. He rarely poses for pictures after one of his horses win. In the dictionary, his photo appears above the word "shy."

Yet he has been known to welcome people he has just met to his barn and give them a first-hand tour of his shed row, allowing them to pet and feed carrots to aristocratic stock.

The Derby victory was especially sweet for Smith, a Hall of Fame rider who will be 40 on Aug. 10. He still can’t comprehend why Holy Bull, Giacomo’s sire, ran so dismally as the 2-1 favorite in the 1994 Derby, finishing 12th of 14 behind Go For Gin. Smith, the regular rider of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri before she was turned over to D. Wayne Lukas, calls Holy Bull "the best horse I’ve ever -ridden."

Smith began riding in California on a regular basis four years ago after establishing himself as a top man on the East Coast, where he led New York jockeys in stakes wins in 1992 and 1993 and rode six winners at Aqueduct twice in the same month, Jan. 13 and 30, 1992. No rider is more accommodating or pleasant to deal with than Smith when it comes to requests from the media.

This was Smith’s 12th ride in the Run for the Roses. He finished second three times, on Prairie Bayou (1993), Proud Citizen (2002) and Lion Heart (2003) and perhaps he thought he would never win, as Laffit Pincay Jr. did until Swale ended a string of 10 losses in 1984.

Even though Giacomo seems likely to join the ranks of ignominious Derby winners such as Charismatic, Grindstone, Sea Hero, Gato del Sol and Dust Commander as one-hit wonders, for Shirreffs and Smith, the memory of their moment in the sun will be just as rewarding as if they guided Secretariat to the winner’s circle.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Derby post-mortems: There won’t be a Triple Crown winner this year, extending the string to 27 in a row since Affirmed won in 1978. With Giacomo winning, Don’t Get Mad running fourth, Buzzards Bay fifth and Wilko sixth, criticism of California’s 3-year-olds was premature. Beyers schmeyers: Giacomo’s last-race Beyer of 95 was eighth-lowest in the Derby. Bellamy Road’s last-race Beyer of 120 meant nothing in the Run for the Roses, where he finished seventh. Mike Battaglia made his best Derby line ever with six perfect numbers.

Here are the morning line odds (and closing odds in parenthesis): Sort It Out, 50 (61); Andromeda’s Hero, 50 (57); Sun King, 15 (15); steam horse Noble Causeway, 12 (12); Coin Silver, 20 (38); High Limit, 12 (22); Flower Alley, 20 (41); Greater Good, 20 (58); Giacomo, 50 (50); High Fly, 8 (7); Afleet Alex, 9-2 (9-2); Spanish Chestnut, 50 (71); Wilko, 20 (21); Bandini, 6 (6); Bellamy Road, 5-2 (5-2); Don’t Get Mad, 30 (29); Closing Argument, 30 (71); Going Wild, 50 (59); and Buzzards Bay, 20 (46).

”¡ Add News You Can Bet On: In GamingToday’s editions of May 2 we alerted readers of two trainers to follow at Hollywood Park, Vladimir Cerin and Neil Drysdale. Through Saturday they ranked second and third, combining for 10 wins.

”¡ Jimmy (The Hat) Allard, whose dress and demeanor are Runyonesque, had a 72-hour fling as a jockey agent for Matt Garcia before firing the 34-year-old rider, whose behavior can some times be disconcerting. "That beats my record," said agent Derek Lawson. "I had his book for a week."