02/02/2006 1:00AM

Derby hero tries to buck trend


ARCADIA, Calif. - In the rest of the civilized racing world, the return of a Derby winner would be greeted by parades and proclamations. Surgeries would be postponed, holidays rescheduled, and children would be excused from school.

By contrast, Giacomo will be quietly taking the stage on Saturday at Santa Anita Park in the $300,000 Strub Stakes, making his debut as a 4-year-old after knee and ankle surgeries, and running for the first time since he faded into the Belmont Stakes background behind Afleet Alex last June.

For those who backed him in the 2005 Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, Giacomo remains a hero of Olympian proportions. But for the other 99.99 percent of the audience, Giacomo's name remains synonymous with fluke, rank opportunist, or one-hit wonder. There are even dark, reactionary corners of the game in which Giacomo is damned as some kind of Triple Crown spoiler, since Afleet Alex so clearly proved his superiority in the subsequent Preakness and Belmont.

Even recent history seems aligned against a returning Derby winner. Since 1990, only two of the 15 Derby winners have had what could be considered star-quality seasons at age 4. In 1998, Silver Charm won the San Fernando, the Strub, the Goodwood, and the Dubai World Cup, and finished a close second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. In 1999, Real Quiet took the Pimlico Special and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Funny Cide, a gelding, cannot be compared to the colts, who had options beyond the racetrack. Still, as a 4-year-old, Funny Cide hung tough long enough to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup (the first Derby winner to do that since Affirmed). The bad news is, he hasn't won a race since.

The other dozen have been a mixed bag, beginning with Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, Charismatic, Fusaichi Pegasus, War Emblem, and Smarty Jones, who never even competed at age 4. Monarchos did, once, then went wrong.

Lynn Whiting got three pretty good races out of the 4-year-old Lil E. Tee before he was injured and retired, as opposed to Mack Miller, who banged his head against the 4-year-old Sea Hero through eight starts and managed to win one allowance race.

Nick Zito had pretty much the same luck with Go for Gin, who lost all nine of his post-Derby starts, three of them at age 4. Then there was Strike the Gold, Zito's first Derby winner, who had 13 races at 4 and three more at age 5, winning the Pimlico Special, the Nassau County, and finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Suburban.

Finally, there was Unbridled. His so-so 4-year-old season of two minor wins from seven starts gets a pass, since he ended his 3-year-old campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The only other Derby winner to do that in the same season was Sunday Silence.

The very least Giacomo deserves going into the second half of his career is the benefit of the doubt. John Shirreffs maintained all through the 2005 Triple Crown that he was training a physically immature 3-year-old who could only improve with age. Mike Smith, Giacomo's one and only jockey, concurs.

"I'm sure he's grown a lot and filled out a lot since the Triple Crown," Smith said Thursday, not long after touching down in L.A. after a flight from Florida.

"He probably won't be firing his best race off a layoff, though," Smith warned. "If he doesn't win, I won't be disappointed. But John wouldn't be running him unless he was ready. I'm sure he's going to run very well, and before it's over we'll see an even better Giacomo."

A relatively weak Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Saturday and a modest San Antonio at Santa Anita on Sunday reveal just how much the game could use an invigorated Giacomo, toting his Derby aura wherever he goes.

Smith, who turned 40 in 2005, also could use the jolt of a new and improved Giacomo. Since the giddy days of last spring and his first Derby victory, the two-time Eclipse Award winner and New York champion has become a virtual vagabond, moving his tack from California to Kentucky, then back to California before settling on south Florida this winter.

Smith has won with just five of his 82 mounts this year, all but a few at Gulfstream, where he would seem to have ready access to the established East Coast stables that helped put him in the Hall of Fame. He won the Gulfstream feature on Wednesday for owner Bruce Lunsford and Frank Brothers, but beyond that there have been way too many longshots for Smith's taste.

"It hasn't gone as well as I'd have liked, but it hasn't been that bad, either," Smith said. "I've had quantity, but not enough quality. I am starting to get my business back, though, little by little."

Smith enjoyed a special bond with Giacomo during their run through the Triple Crown. But that was a long time ago. Will the rangy roan colt even remember his jockey when they are reunited on Saturday?

"I hope so," Smith said. "And I think he will. But I definitely plan on reminding him of that first Saturday in May."