02/02/2006 1:00AM

Giacomo back to face down doubters


ARCADIA, Calif. - Last summer at Del Mar, when Giacomo was taking it easy at trainer John Shirreffs's barn, the stable had visitors almost on a daily basis who wanted to see the Kentucky Derby winner. Shirreffs, ever the gracious host, kept a digital camera handy to accommodate the guests, many of whom later received an e-mail from the trainer with a picture of themselves and Giacomo.

"It's amazing how many people want to be around the Kentucky Derby winner," Shirreffs said earlier this week, recalling those days.

Saturday at Santa Anita, Giacomo the tour stop returns to his proper role as Giacomo the racehorse when he makes his 4-year-old debut in the $300,000 .

The Grade 2 Strub will be Giacomo's first start since a seventh-place finish in the Belmont Stakes last June. Following that race, Giacomo underwent surgery to have bone chips removed from an ankle and knee.

The Strub Stakes is the first start of a campaign designed to get Giacomo back to Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup Classic in November, a race likely to be his last before he goes to stud at Adena Springs in Kentucky in 2007.

For owners Jerry and Ann Moss, the memories of the 3-year-old campaign remain fresh.

"We're still in awe of what this horse has accomplished," Jerry Moss said. "I don't know if we'll ever be the same."

Since late November, Giacomo has been working on a weekly basis at Hollywood Park, preparing for his 2006 campaign. After a seven-furlong workout last Friday, Shirreffs said Giacomo was ready to run.

"It's so much fun to have the Derby horse back to the races," Shirreffs said.

Giacomo will start in the Strub with questions surrounding his form. He was a 50-1 outsider in the Kentucky Derby when he stormed from 18th in a field of 20 to pull an upset. The same rally was only good enough for third in the Preakness Stakes behind Afleet Alex, who nearly fell in early stretch. In the Belmont Stakes, Giacomo raced closer to the front than normal and led briefly with a quarter-mile remaining, but faded to finish 17 3/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex. The surgery took place a week later.

Although critics note that Giacomo is still eligible for a second-condition allowance race, Shirreffs is quick to point out that Giacomo is the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner.

"Twenty horses did line up" in the Kentucky Derby, he said. "They had an equal opportunity. Giacomo ran a super race in the Kentucky Derby."

Since Giacomo returned to serious training in the fall, the colt has been more aggressive, Shirreffs said. He certainly has a different appearance, having filled out noticeably.

"He's probably a good 150 pounds heavier," Shirreffs said. "At 3, he was kind of thin. If you see the difference between his 3-year-old year and his 4-year-old year, he's a bigger and stronger horse."

A Kentucky Derby winner racing as an older horse has been a rarity in recent years. Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner, is the only other active Derby winner. He has not won a race since the fall of 2004, most recently finishing second to Sir Greeley in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Thursday.

The recent standards for a Kentucky Derby winner racing as an older horse were set in the late 1990's. Silver Charm, the 1997 Kentucky Derby winner, won 7 of 14 starts and $5.1 million at 4 and 5. Real Quiet, the 1998 Kentucky Derby winner, won two major stakes at 4 in 1999.

Whether Giacomo can emulate those horses will be determined in coming months. Jerry Moss is ready for the 2006 season, but hesitant about what to expect on Saturday.

"We know he's fit," Moss said. "It's a question of whether he is racing fit and still has that edge. In the past, it took a few races to get into a good groove. That might happen. I think we'll be competitive; whether he wins or not, I can't say. We want him to have a good run."

Outside of racing, Moss is well known as the co-founder of A&M Records, which recorded such acts as The Police, Burt Bacharach, and Joe Cocker. Giacomo's success has given him newfound recognition.

"People say to me, 'You're the Giacomo guy, right?' " Moss said. "If that's my new calling, I'm proud to have it. I spent 40 years in the music business and had a good time. The Giacomo thing is a really good time."

To Moss, the reaction that people have to Giacomo reminds him of the enthusiasm people show for musicians.

"I think it's great for the West Coast to have a Derby winner running out here," he said. "It's been awhile. I love having people react to a performer. I'm so happy to have an equine one."