10/17/2006 11:00PM

Can Giacomo go back to the future?


The days are winding down to a precious few that trainer John Shirreffs will be able to arrive at the track every morning and be greeted by the horse who changed his life. No, Giacomo did not change Shirreffs's personality, which does not seek the limelight. But Giacomo's upset victory in last year's Kentucky Derby rammed home nationally what bettors and his training peers in Southern California had long known, that Shirreffs is one of the best at his craft.

Giacomo's Derby victory often is looked at as a fluke, since he has won just once in seven starts since the first Saturday in May 2005. Giacomo's win, however, can also be looked at as the successful culmination of exacting, long-range preparation, cut right from the pages of the Charlie Whittingham textbook.

As did Whittingham, Shirreffs deflects all credit, putting it on the horse. "He's always shown an inner toughness," Shirreffs said.

Shirreffs truly admires Giacomo, and is genuinely excited when visitors stop by the barn to see a Kentucky Derby winner. If someone brings a camera, Shirreffs will make like Ansel Adams and take their photo with the horse. If the visitor has neglected to bring a camera, Shirreffs uses a digital camera he keeps at his Hollywood Park barn, then e-mails the photo to the visitor.

"A couple of little girls came out the other day, 9 or 10 years old, with a picture they had drawn of Giacomo," Shirreffs said. "It's been a wonderful experience."

In a little more than two weeks, Giacomo will make the final start of his career, in the $5omillion Breeders' Cup Classic. With all the focus rightly on Eclipse Award candidates Bernardini, Lava Man, and Invasor, and Europeans George Washington and David Junior, Giacomo again will be a longshot. For Shirreffs, a return to Churchill Downs, he believes, gives Giacomo his best chance to perform at his optimum. But after the race, Giacomo will be retired to stud duty at co-owner Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm.

"I don't think I'll feel sentimental the day of the race," Shirreffs said. "It probably won't have an impact until I walk in one morning and he's not in his stall."

Giacomo's lone victory since the Derby came this summer, in Del Mar's San Diego Handicap. Giacomo then was fifth in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and most recently was a late-running third in the Goodwood BC Handicap behind Lava Man and Brother Derek. The Goodwood mirrored last year's Santa Anita Derby in that both were 1 1/8-mile races over a Santa Anita surface that might not have enhanced Giacomo's style. Now, for the first Saturday in November, Giacomo again will get to go 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs, just as in the Derby.

"I thought his last race was very good," Shirreffs said. "He was closing at the end, finishing well. It's tough for a horse who comes off the pace when there's a tremendous speed bias.

"Mike," Shirreffs said, referring to jockey Mike Smith, who has ridden Giacomo in all 15 of his races, "was excited. He said it was just like last year's Santa Anita Derby. Churchill has a long stretch, and he comes and comes."

Shirreffs said Giacomo is "much more mature" than a year ago.

"He was a long, gangly 3-year-old," Shirreffs said. "Mentally, when he went to the Derby, he had no idea what was going on."

After he saddles Giacomo, Shirreffs is likely to watch the race from trackside, as he did a year ago. Not necessarily because he's superstitious, but more out of practicality.

"It's hard to get upstairs anyway," Shirreffs said. "It's easier to watch it close to the racetrack. But if there's a lucky spot, I'll find it."

In other Classic developments:

* It's No Joke, the Hawthorne Gold Cup winner, will not run in the Classic, trainer Becky Maker said Wednesday.

"Our next goal is the Clark Handicap at the end of November," she said. "He'll run in the Fayette or the Ack Ack before that. We want to get him a Grade 1 win, and think this is the best way to go about it."

* Master Command, the Meadowlands Cup winner, will bypass the Classic and also await the Clark at Churchill Downs, trainer Todd Pletcher said.

* Many of the runners will remain at their home base before shipping to Churchill Downs a few days before the race. Giacomo is scheduled to arrive from California on Oct. 31, while Bernardini and Invasor are part of a star-studded contingent traveling from New York on Nov. 1.

"We're going to put him next to Bernardini on the plane and eyeball him," said Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Invasor.

* Brother Derek, by contrast, will leave California for Kentucky next week so as to have his final work at Churchill Downs five days before the Classic, trainer Dan Hendricks said.

* Sun King is already at Churchill Downs, where he will have two works, this weekend and next, trainer Nick Zito said.

* Lava Man is at Keeneland, where he will have his final Classic work on Oct. 27 before traveling by van to Churchill on Oct. 28, trainer Doug O'Neill said. Despite the rain that hit Keeneland this week, Lava Man has trained right along on Polytrack.

"That's the beauty of that track - it doesn't change," O'Neill said.

* Pre-entries are due Monday, and will be announced Wednesday. The only way Discreet Cat will be pre-entered is if something completely unforeseen befalls Bernardini. "A decision will be made before pre-entries on Monday," said Rick Mettee, the trainer of Discreet Cat, who is being pointed to next month's Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

* Those expected to be pre-entered are Bernardini, Brother Derek, David Junior, George Washington, Giacomo, Invasor, Lava Man, Perfect Drift, Shirocco, Suave, Sun King, and Super Frolic, and possibly Flower Alley, Lawyer Ron, and Strong Contender.