DEL MAR, Calif. - The spotlight takes a while to find John Shirreffs, so careful is the trainer to avoid it. When he wins a race, Shirreffs stands off to the side while the winner's circle photos are taken, enjoying the spectacle. The only time he has made an exception in recent years was when Giacomo won last year's Kentucky Derby, which thrust Shirreffs front and center.
After subsequent losses in the Preakness and Belmont, and two more losses earlier this year following a layoff, Giacomo was viewed in many quarters as a fluke Derby winner, a perception that caused Shirreffs to quietly seethe. So it was particularly gratifying for Shirreffs last month when Giacomo won the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. It was his first win since the Derby, and made Giacomo one of the leading contenders for the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday.
What Shirreffs appreciated most, though, was the postrace reception Giacomo received when he returned to the winner's circle. Giacomo was 9-2 that day, so the heartfelt applause he received had to come from more than those who bet on him. Shirreffs, as is his custom, stood off to the side, taking it all in.
"We love Giacomo, everyone who is involved with him, because he's so classy," Shirreffs said at his Del Mar barn. "You wish everyone else would feel the same way. Not everyone did. It was gratifying to see the effort he made appreciated. Not only winning the San Diego Handicap, but recognition that he's a Kentucky Derby winner."
The return of Giacomo - who was bred and is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss - to top form has coincided with a similar run of good fortune with other horses trained by Shirreffs. Last Saturday, A. P. Warrior won his turf debut in the La Jolla Handicap, making him a possible starter in the Del Mar Derby next month. The consistent mare Hollywood Story won the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park in July. Proposed won the Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap in June, and is scheduled to run Friday in the Grade 3, $200,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap.
"It's unbelievable, I'd say," Shirreffs said.
Giacomo, though, is the stable star. Shirreffs still receives mail asking about the colt, and gets aggravated with himself if he doesn't have time to answer a letter or a request for a photo that day. For someone not accustomed to the limelight, Shirreffs immediately sensed that winning the Derby brings special requirements to those connected with the colt.
"I think it's a big-time obligation," Shirreffs said. "It's no longer just Mr. Moss's horse. It's sort of everybody's horse. I got a letter from an elderly woman the other day asking for a picture of Giacomo. I sent her one. People like that, this might be one of their only contacts with the outside world."
The Derby win is forever etched in Shirreffs's memory. And that is where it remains. To this day, he has never watched a replay of the race, so desirous is he of remembering only his initial impression of that moment. Shirreffs watched the race along the outer rail at Churchill Downs, about 100 yards from the finish, next to exercise rider Frankie Herrate.
"I very vividly remember Frankie grabbing a hold of me and saying, 'We won, boss! We won!' " Shirreffs said. "Then we ran out on the track, and we were wondering, 'Where are we going?' Luckily they have lots of people there to point the way."
When Giacomo came to the winner's circle, "you could see in his eyes he gave everything he had," Shirreffs said.
"It was a hot day," he said. "He didn't hold anything back. I respect anybody or any horse that does that."
That affection is what made Shirreffs upset with the recurring theme surrounding Giacomo in stories this spring. Giacomo had won the Derby at 50-1, was third in the Preakness, seventh in the Belmont, then was off until February after having surgery on his left ankle and knee. Subsequent losses in the Strub, in which he was third, and Santa Anita Handicap, in which he was fifth, gave skeptics even more ammunition that the Derby was an aberration.
"The press is kind of a fickle entity," Shirreffs said. "They grab hold of a storyline. I guess you have to accept it. You can't fight it. But I guess that's the great thing about this country, that you get to express your feelings."
In recent weeks, Giacomo has been training sensationally. Whether that translates into a win against Lava Man is another matter, but from all indications, Giacomo will run his race. Shirreffs believes that Giacomo at last is coming to a race ideally, perhaps for the first time since the Derby. The rest of the Triple Crown was almost an obligation, and preparations did not go exactly as planned earlier this year.
"We were trying to get him ready for the Santa Anita Handicap, and the only chance we had to make it was to run in the Strub," Shirreffs said. "We sort of realized along the way that maybe it was too much. So after the Santa Anita Handicap, we regrouped and took care of him."