Belmont can validate Giacomo's Derby win

Updated: July 22, 2005, 7:10 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

This, and not the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, is the moment of truth for Giacomo.

Is he a top class horse, a worthy Kentucky Derby winner? Or was his Kentucky Derby win a fluke? It's a fair question. A fair question that will be answered in the Belmont Stakes.

No one, of course, expected Giacomo to even be a factor in the Kentucky Derby. How could you? He had lost three straight in California, including a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, and the west coast horses were routinely being trashed as the worst group going. He was 1-for-7 in his career, with the lone win coming in a maiden race, and was sent off at 50-1 in the Derby. If anything, his odds should have been higher.

So how did he win the Kentucky Derby? He peaked on the right day, got a perfect ride from Mike Smith and benefitted from a brutally fast pace that set the race up perfectly for a horse with his late-running style. Combine that with the fact that several top horses picked that day not to show up and Giacomo was able to win a race few thought he could ever win.

Not surprisingly, no one was ready to declare this horse the second coming of Smarty Jones. He looked more like Gato Del Sol II.

"We were a little disappointed after the Kentucky Derby because I don't know that everybody appreciated the effort that Giacomo made," trainer John Shirreffs said. "He came from way back, weaved between traffic and won the race. That was a little disappointing, but not too much because you're walking home with a trophy. So, everything was pretty good."

"I think a lot of people picked wrong in the Derby and it created a reaction that, instead of saying they were wrong, they knocked the horse," said the owner, Jerry Moss.

So Giacomo shows up in the Preakness. No one is willing to call him a bum this time, but he's still 6-1 to Afleet Alex's 3-1 and you can count on one hand the number of public handicappers who had him on top. The best thing that can be said about him that day was that he wasn't awful. He ran third, 9 3/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex.

"Having run well in the Preakness was great," Shirreffs said.

Then again, it's not like he did anything special. He was a bad third, never threatened at any point in the race, finished behind the less-than-immortal Scrappy T and would have been beaten a dozen lengths or more had Afleet Alex not gone to his knees near the top of the stretch.

One the one hand, he won the greatest horse race of them all, the Kentucky Derby, and was third in the Preakness. On the other hand, he might have been tremendously fortunate to have won the Derby and was soundly beaten in the Preakness. How good is he? The case isn't closed.

The Belmont, though, should settle the issue. Shirreffs has made no excuses coming in, declaring that his horse is doing well, has held up through the Triple Crown grind and should be ready for his very best.

"We took him back to California (after the Preakness) and trained there and relaxed there in our own stall," Shirreffs said. "To put him back on a plane to run here is indicative of how well he is doing."

The distance? It shouldn't be a problem. Like everyone else in the field, he has never gone a mile and a half before, but he was won at a mile and a quarter and shows no signs that he's going to be tripped up by the extra two furlongs in the Belmont.

The pace? Unlike in the Derby, it should be fair. The fractions will be moderate early, which won't give Giacomo any sort of advantage.

The competition? Besides Afleet Alex, there is no one to even remotely worry about in this race. The nine new shooters are nothing to get excited about.

Just about everything is in Giacomo's favor here and everything is set for him to run a good race. He doesn't even need to win. He can be a solid second, giving Afleet Alex a competitive battle. If so, I will take my hat off to him and will be ready to admit I underestimated him all along and he is indeed a nice horse.

But what if he comes up short, fails threaten or even hit the board? Then we will have answered the questions: he will be a rather ordinary horse who was very lucky to have won the Kentucky Derby.

Watch the Belmont on NBC this Saturday at 5 p.m. ET

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com