Home flavor mayinspire Giacomo

Jun 7, 2005 3:24 AM

If there’s one thing Mike Smith knows more about than riding Giacomo, it’s successfully negotiating the mile and a half main track at the vast expanse called Belmont Park.

Smith was a home boy in New York for more than a decade, winning hundreds of races in the Big Apple before moving to California in May of 2001. That transfer enabled him to gain the mount on Giacomo, a late-running colt he steered to a 50-1 upset over Closing Argument and Afleet Alex in the Kentucky Derby before finishing a distant third to Afleet Alex in the Preakness.

On Saturday, Smith will attempt to guide Giacomo to victory in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes, rubber match between the gray son of Holy Bull and the Preakness winner, who tripped the light fantastic to miraculously capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Giacomo won the Derby at a mile and a quarter by a half-length, but succumbed to the sharper turns and the shorter distance at Pimlico, finishing 9 3/4 lengths behind the nimble Afleet Alex and five lengths behind runner-up Scrappy T in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

Smith, who has ridden Giacomo in each of his nine races, is confident on three counts in the 137th Belmont: his familiarity with the horse, the course, and the distance.

"I’ve felt all along that Giacomo acts like the distance certainly will help," said the affable Smith, who turns 40 on Aug. 10. "I think what’s really going to help is those wide, sweeping turns. He’s a tall, leggy horse and the turns at Pimlico are a little tighter and he didn’t get around them as quick. But horses can really run around the turns at Belmont which should be good for him because he hits his stride and has a lot of stamina, so you can kind of get him going and he’ll stay for a long ways."

Smith knows whereof he speaks. The native of Roswell, N.M., led New York jockeys in stakes wins in 1992 with 29 and in 1993 with 42. He swept Belmont’s Triple Tiara for 3-year-old fillies in 1993 (Acorn, Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks) with Sky Beauty.

"It’s like home for me back there," said Smith, who began riding regularly in New York in 1989. "I’ve been there for many years so this will be nothing new for me, but I don’t know if that will help in any way. I’d say yeah, I have an advantage (over relative rookie Jeremy Rose, who rides Afleet Alex, and has but one win in nine career mounts at Belmont Park). In fact, I’ll be there to ride this Thursday and Friday before the Belmont."

Giacomo did not have the cleanest trip in the Preakness, but to what degree, if any, it cost him, is open to discussion. No way was he going to beat Afleet Alex, however. The official Equibase chart says Giacomo was "sluggish early while four wide around the first turn, was put to urging nearing the far turn, raced between rivals nearing the stretch, eased out and worked his way between foes leaving the eighth pole and continued on with good energy."

Smith was realistic in assessing the race.

"I didn’t really have trouble as far as getting shut off," he said, "but I had to wait longer than I wanted to. I had to sit there on idle until he finally got through, but by then they had a good jump on me. Afleet Alex just ran amazing that day. You can’t take anything away from him. He ran a dynamite race but who knows, I might have got up for second."

Smith plans to resume riding regularly at Hollywood Park for the meet’s last 10 days after Churchill Downs ends (July 10), then will remain in California to ride the Del Mar meet (which starts July 20). "After that," Smith said, "I have a month off so I’ll go into New York and get ready for the Breeders’ Cup (at Belmont Park on Oct. 29) and come back to California for the winter."

While critics point sneeringly to Giacomo’s Derby win as a one-hit wonder, Smith is relishing his first victory in the Run for the Roses for all it’s worth, like Christopher Croft or K C and the Sunshine Band.

"I’m enjoying it to its fullest," Smith said. "It’s just been amazing, so much more than I ever thought it would be. I’m just so grateful and I thank the Lord that I finally got to accomplish my dream. I’m going to enjoy every single little bit of it."

THE HOMESTRETCH:

My Belmont picks: Afleet Alex, Giacomo, Southern Africa and Pinpoint. Afleet Alex looks like a lock, but so did Real Quiet and Smarty Jones, and they lost. Rose should get first run on Giacomo and just needs to time his move properly. Barring anything unforeseen, the race is his.

”¡ Ghostzapper could be so awesome this year it’s conceivable one of his races leading to the Breeders’ Cup Classic could be a walkover. Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who rode Ghostzapper to victory in his first start, says, "Even then he felt like he was something special. When he got beat in his next race, it turns out he had a temperature of 103."

”¡ Del Mar Future Book: Bill Spawr is enthusiastic about several Brazilian imports he plans to run at the seaside meet. The 64-year-old trainer led the standings at Del Mar in 1994 and 1990.

”¡ Lookalikes: David Wells and Nick Hines.