Giacomo, who was 0-for-3 this year, made his first victory as a 3-year-old a memorable one, closing powerfully from 18th with a half-mile to go to win the Kentucky Derby.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The racing writer looked through her binoculars as the colt in the green and pink colors took the lead five strides from the wire. "Who is that?" she asked of nobody in particular. "Who's that in front?"
It was a good question, because no one had given Giacomo a second look going into the 131st Kentucky Derby, so who would have known the silks that Mike Smith was wearing? Here was a colt still eligible for a non-winners-of-1 allowance race and had been an uninspiring fourth in the universally reviled Santa Anita Derby. There was no way he could be given a chance against the highly regarded Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex and Bandini. Even if 10 horses fell down, Giacomo had no chance, right? He had no speed figures and a no-name trainer in John Shirreffs. As this alleged expert wrote in his horse-by-horse Derby analysis: "He should be at Santa Anita running in a non-winners-of-1 on the first Saturday in May, not in the Kentucky Derby. Stay in the barn. Why bother?"
"How little we know" is my mantra this week, and I'm not alone. Horse racing is a crazy, humbling game, and you should always say maybe. I'll try to remember that -- for a few days.
Giacomo, who was 0-for-3 this year, made his first victory as a 3-year-old a memorable one, closing powerfully from 18th with a half-mile to go to win America's Race by half a length at the insane odds of 50-1. Second was 72-1 Closing Argument, with 9-2 Afleet Alex, the only fancied horse who did anything, coming in third, another half-length back and 2¼ lengths in front of 29-1 Don't Get Mad.
Behind them in seventh was the 5-2 favorite, Bellamy Road, touted as an merging star, and trainer Nick Zito's four other runners - Andromeda's Hero (8th), High Fly (10th), Noble Causeway (14th) and Sun King (15th). Trainer Todd Pletcher did even worse, with Flower Alley (9th) and Coin Silver (12th) finishing far ahead of the touted Bandini, 19th of 20 after backpedaling entering the far turn.
It was the first Derby win in 12 tries for Smith, who lost on Giacomo's sire, the heavily favored Holy Bull, in 1994. At the other extreme, Shirreffs became the third consecutive trainer to win the Derby in his first attempt. Giacomo ran 1¼ miles in 2:02.75 before a shocked crowd of 156,435, second largest in Derby history, and earned $1,639,600 for owner/breeders Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Moss.
"I know what it's like to hurt that bad, too," Smith said. "Now I'm just glad I got to win one. I've been telling this colt, ever since I got on him, before he ever ran, that he was going to redeem his father's name in the Kentucky Derby. And I used to tell John that.
"Just to make it here was amazing, and to have won it, I can't even describe it. It's moving."
Shirreffs, a 59-year-old based in Southern California, is such a low-key guy that he often prefers not to be photographed in the winner's circle. He broke that habit Saturday.
"I didn't see a lot of the race," Shirreffs said. "I was down on track level, so I didn't see too much. Then I picked him up at about the three-sixteenths pole and I saw the white shadow roll and I said, 'Well, he's moving.' Then Mike got him to the outside and he was gobbling up ground and I thought, 'Wow, we have a chance to hit the board, and oh, no, we might even win it.'
"So it was awesome."
Like the payoffs. Giacomo returned $102.60, $45.50 and $19.80 across the board, topping a $9,614.exacta, a $133,134.80 trifecta and a $1 superfecta that returned an unimaginable $864,253.50. Giacomo went off at the highest odds of any Derby winner except for Doneraile, a 91-1 bomber in 1913.
At the other emotional extreme were Zito and Pletcher, who sent out 40 percent of the Derby field and got nothing.
"I don't know what happened," Zito said. "It's disappointing that it didn't happen for us today.
"Great expectations make for great disappointments. It's going to be a little bit of a setback, but when you think about what happens in life, it's not that bad."
Pletcher's three-horse dud dropped him to 0-for-12 in the Derby, tying his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, for the all-time longest oh-fer in the big race. "It seems Bandini was fighting the dirt being kicked in his face the whole time," Pletcher said. "The other two ran respectably, I thought. We'll regroup and come back next year."
For the 39-year-old Smith, who rode his first Derby in 1984, next year finally arrived when almost no one but him expected it. Three runner-up finishes, in 1993, 2002 and 2004, made the win that much sweeter.
"Last year, running second again [on Lion Heart], I started to wonder," Smith said. "Yeah, it plays in your mind, but when I met this colt, man, I knew there was hope again. I said this was our Derby and he was going to redeem his father's name and he did it."
Watch the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 21 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC.
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