05/18/2005 11:00PM

Caring side takes Smith long way

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"I guess I have kind of a special bond with this guy. I mean, his dad was Holy Bull, and that kind of brought us together. I'm very confident in him." - Mike Smith on Giacomo

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Mike Smith thought he could sneak into the Kentucky Derby Museum early Wednesday afternoon, sign a couple of Derby doodads, and pick up a few souvenirs before reporting to the jocks' room next door at Churchill Downs and hitting the hot box.

Boy, did he get that wrong.

Smith was no sooner through the door than he was swarmed by an elementary school field trip full of young Louisville racing fans. For the kids, it was the next best thing to seeing Giacomo himself. Smith was already a real-life Kentucky celebrity - after all, he had been on TV - and now here he was in the flesh.

"I got bombarded," Smith said, still laughing about the experience. "Must have been a hundred fifty of them. I ended up giving a speech."

At least the audience was receptive. For the past week, Smith has been flying in the face of the prevalent handicapping wisdom, expressing quiet confidence that Giacomo will be right there at the end of the 130th Preakness Stakes, just as he was in the Derby.

If Smith was a one-shot, overnight sensation who just happened to luck into a Derby winner after a career of relative anonymity, then who cares what he thinks? This guy, though, just might know what he's talking about.

Now a few months shy of his 40th birthday, Smith has ridden nearly 4,500 winners, dating back to his days as a 16-year-old bug boy in his native New Mexico. The bulk of his numbers have been achieved at the top-level tracks of New York, Florida, and California. On the way to his 2003 Hall of Fame induction, Smith had thrown a leg over a whole gallery of stars, including Skip Away, Lure, Azeri, Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Thunder Gulch, Awesome Again, Devil His Due, Heavenly Prize, and Holy Bull, his all-time favorite.

"I guess I have kind of a special bond with this guy," Smith said, referring to Giacomo. "I mean, his dad was Holy Bull, and that kind of brought us together. I'm very confident in him. I feel very comfortable around him. He looks so much like his dad, and I let him know it all the time."

Smith is one of those jockeys who, by his own admission, communicates better with horses than people. And the best way to a horse's heart is through the hands. While in the saddle, when appropriate, Smith will give his mounts a therapeutic neck rub. He has been known to enter Giacomo's stall, hop on a stool, and treat the grateful gray colt to a massage.

"They're athletes, just like us," Smith said. "I know the release points, what frees up the muscles, and I can tell he likes it, even though he will knock me off the stool a few times."

John Shirreffs, Giacomo's organically oriented trainer, says he welcomes Smith's attachment to the colt.

"Mike likes horses," Shirreffs said. "He really does. I'm not sure you can say that about all jockeys."

On the day after the Kentucky Derby, once the morning crowds had cleared away, this particular jockey could be found at the mouth of Giacomo's Barn 45 stall with the Derby winner's head in his lap. It was nap time, and Giacomo had a right to be tired.

"In this sport, you sometimes try not to get too attached to them," Smith said. "You know how it is. You're on one then off one, on to the next. Who knows how long you get to stay with them?"

And who knows how long they will last? A dozen years ago, Smith let Prairie Bayou get under his skin. Together they won the 1993 Count Fleet, Whirlaway, and Blue Grass Stakes before finishing a troubled second as the favorite in a 19-horse Kentucky Derby field. Two weeks later, in the 118th Preakness, Prairie Bayou gave Smith his first and only Triple Crown classic until Giacomo came along. Then, in the Belmont Stakes, Prairie Bayou suffered a fatal fracture and was euthanized.

"I used to spend a lot of time with Prairie Bayou," Smith said. "He was so cool. He'd lay down in his stall, and I'd go in there and lay down on top of him. He loved it. Wouldn't move. I'd rub his head and he'd just lay there, making noises."

In the 1993 Preakness, Prairie Bayou came from far back to run down the forwardly placed Cherokee Run by a half-length. Smith can see a similar scenario unfolding this time around, but he warns that it would be a mistake to assume, from the Derby, that Giacomo is a dull plodder who needs a blistering pace. One look at his California form trashes that cliche.

"Giacomo's the kind of horse you have to finesse," Smith said. "If you just leave his head down he's fine, but if you start pulling against him and get his head up, he's gone. I don't think he'll be as far back as he was in the Derby. So I'll just leave there, let him get comfortable, and try to keep it simple.

"John got him to the Derby just right, but the way he's acting, he might have even taken a step forward," Smith added. "The way he's training, I know he's going to run well. He's going to fire. We'll just have to see where that takes us."