08/17/2006 11:00PM

Blanket of roses sometimes weighs heavily

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Exercise rider Steve Willard says Giacomo is "growing steady."

DEL MAR, Calif. - The executive director of the California Horse Racing Board arrived at the John Shirreffs barn a little before 8 o'clock Friday morning and made a beeline for the trainer. Shirreffs, apparently a man with very little to hide, never even flinched.

As it turned out, Ingrid Fermin only wanted to give some friends from the Department of Finance in Sacramento a peek at Giacomo, a real, live Kentucky Derby winner, who at that moment was mellowed out in stall No. 1, standing in knee boots filled with ice and getting an electronic massage.

"It can't hurt asking," Fermin said. "They do have a lot to say about our budget."

Shirreffs was happy to cooperate.

"Sure. Go ahead," the trainer said from atop Winston, his white pony. "We can bring him out of the stall if you like so they can take pictures. Oh, no camera? No problem. We've got one in the office. We'll have someone take your picture and send it to you."

That's pretty much been Shirreffs's job since the 2005 Derby, as tour director of the good ship Giacomo. Scorned by pundits, the gray horse is an everyday fan favorite, and no one is a bigger fan of Giacomo than his trainer.

That is why it was hardly surprising to see Shirreffs standing on the track after Giacomo's victory in the San Diego Handicap on July 22, facing his horse and leading the appreciative applause. Shirreffs and the rest of the Giacomo crowd will get another chance on Sunday in Del Mar's $1 million Pacific Classic, when their hero faces the likes of Lava Man, Perfect Drift, Magnum, and Good Reward in the 1 1/4-mile centerpiece of the summer meet.

Giacomo will be the third Kentucky Derby winner to appear in the Pacific Classic (Unbridled finished third in the 1991 inaugural running, while War Emblem was sixth in 2002), but a lot has happened since Giacomo's glorious '05 Derby score at 50-1, including knee and ankle surgery, and four high-profile losses. Shirreffs was beginning to feel like the last soul on earth - other than owners Ann and Jerry Moss - who still had faith in the colt as a top-class racehorse.

"For whatever reason, Giacomo did something very exceptional that day at Churchill Downs," Shirreffs said. "When he came into the winner's circle, his eyes were glazed over, and he was probably a little on the weak side. If you remember, it was really hot, so he was probably a little dehydrated. The garland of roses they give the winner is very heavy, so we waited to put them on until he started to catch his breath.

"To me, he was a horse on that particular day who exceeded any limitations he might have had," Shirreffs went on. "I think that's what people appreciate in a racehorse, and in any racehorse, not just Giacomo. I mean, that's why we breed them. Other horses don't do that - Thoroughbreds do that. That's the beauty of this breed.

"I remember getting on my first Thoroughbred," Shirreffs added. "I'd been riding all these cold-blooded horses, and sitting on the Thoroughbred I could feel the heart beat - thump, thump, thump, thump - right beneath my legs. They were just waiting go, their ears pricked, ready to take you to a different place."

It is one of racing's twisted ironies that had Giacomo not won the Kentucky Derby he probably would possess a better record today. He would not have run in the Preakness, and he might have run better in the Belmont, instead of emerging from the race requiring the removal of bone chips, followed by a long recuperation that cut into his preparation for racing earlier this year at Santa Anita.

As further evidence, the Giacomo of today is a dramatically different physical specimen compared to the narrow, weak-rumped Derby winner of nearly 16 months ago.

"He's been growing steady," said veteran exercise rider Steve Willard, who has been with Shirreffs five years and been the regular guy aboard Giacomo the past few months. "I'd say he's put on a good 50 pounds, and put it on in the right places - in the barrel and in his ass."

Willard, a 61-year-old native of Winnetka, Ill., knows what it takes to be around a Pacific Classic winner. During his tenure on the staff of Richard Mandella, he handled the morning chores atop Gentlemen, who won the race in 1997.

"Richard and John have a lot in common, besides being great horsemen," Willard said. "They're both very much the boss, but they will listen to you. It's like John says, 'Four eyes are better than two. Six eyes are better than four.'

"But I do think Giacomo was kind of a puzzle to John sometimes," Willard went on. "I'd see him in front of his stall, his cap tipped back and him kind of rubbing the side of his face. And you know what? He figured it out."

Asked to assess Giacomo's chances on Sunday, Willard wisely put the question in perspective.

"I worked for Jack Van Berg," Willard noted. "And he always said to me, 'As long as they're training forwardly, Steve, we don't have much to worry about.' Giacomo is definitely training forwardly."