02/02/2006 1:00AM

Don't dismiss Giacomo in shaky Strub

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is cool that the Kentucky Derby winner returns Saturday at Santa Anita.

In this age of early retirement and untimely injury, it is cause for celebration when a good horse such as Giacomo forsakes stallion duty and returns to the track at age 4.

Giacomo might not win the Grade 2 Strub Stakes. The odds are he will not. And sure, there are a number of reasons to slam the Derby winner.

His speed figures are not good enough. He was lucky to win the Derby, a low-rated race that fell apart late. Giacomo has not raced in eight months and his closing style hardly suits the Santa Anita racing surface.

But before betting against Giacomo on Saturday, bettors must realize they would be wagering against the best horse in the race.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. But sometimes, when you bet against the best horse, you end up getting burned.

It happened one week ago when Grade 1 winner Lava Man returned in a manufactured stakes race restricted to horses bred in Florida and California. The thought was that Lava Man had gone off form, lost a step, and was nowhere near the horse he was last summer when he won the Hollywood Gold Cup by nearly nine lengths.

For all the right reasons, many lined up to bet against Lava Man. And it turns out that they were right.

Lava Man has lost a step. He is not the horse he was last summer when he earned successive Beyer Figures of 116, 120, and 112 at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. In fact, Lava Man has regressed so far that the Beyer Figure he earned Saturday was a mere 98, about eight lengths slower than his midseason form of 2005.

Problem was, there was not a horse in the Sunshine Millions Classic that could exploit Lava Man's vulnerability. It was a bad race, run in a brutal 1:49.98 for 1 1/8 miles. But the best horse won. Lava Man reached back for his old class, fell into a perfect trip behind the kamikaze leaders, and won by 2 1/4 ugly lengths.

Could the same thing happen Saturday at Santa Anita? The Strub field is weak, and Giacomo is simply the best horse. Call him lucky if you have to, but there is more to winning the Derby that just being in the right place at the right time.

At age 2, Giacomo finished second by a length in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity. Was that mere luck? He ran well to finish third with an impossibly wide trip in his first start at age 3, then finished a creditable second behind a freaking Consolidator on a wet-fast track. Was that luck, too?

The fact is, Giacomo can run. He may not run fast enough to pacify speed handicappers, but so what? Maybe this year, Giacomo will run fast. He will have to.

In a press conference Wednesday at Santa Anita, trainer John Shirreffs said Giacomo "has gained 150 pounds" and added that the 4-year-old is "a little more aggressive than he was as a 3-year-old. He's a bigger, stronger horse."

He should be. A physically sound horse should have his best season at age 4, when horses typically reach full maturity.

Can Giacomo fire first start back going 1 1/8 miles?

"He's been on a pretty steady work schedule for the last 10 weeks," Shirreffs said. "He is a distance horse, I don't think [nine furlongs] will be a problem."

The main problem for Giacomo is trying to catch a quicker horse in High Limit, who raced gate to wire one month ago in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap for older horses. But those who believe the 2005 Derby was a bad race should take a good look at the San Pasqual.

The first six finishers were within 2 1/2 lengths at the wire. The final time was a dull 1:43.64 for 1 1/16 miles and translated to a winning Beyer of only 100. High Limit set the pace, and won the race for two reasons - he is a good horse and the horses behind him were not.

As the speed of the field, High Limit might race wire to wire again Saturday.

Dixie Meister also ran well against older last out, finishing second in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. But the knocks on High Limit and Dixie Meister are the same as Giacomo - they are not fast horses.

Over the past 10 years, the median Beyer earned by the Strub winner has been 110. Only three Strub entrants this year have reached 100 - Greeley's Galaxy (106) last April, High Limit (100 last time, 105 last March), and Giacomo (100) at Churchill Downs.

In the 2006 Strub, there just aren't any fast horses. Not yet, at least.

But the Derby winner is supposed to be a better horse this year. And he is back.

Giacomo might not be able to catch the speed. Or, he might.

Because when he enters the starting gate and races Saturday for the first time in eight months, there is little question that Giacomo is the best horse in the race.

The Kentucky Derby winner returns Saturday. And that is very cool, indeed.