05/18/2005 11:00PM

Giacomo caught several eyes early

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Joy Gilbert
Giacomo, as a foal with his dam, Set Them Free, was quick and athletic at an early age. John Shirreffs (below) has trained him his entire career.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When he saw the replay of Giacomo's winning trip in the Kentucky Derby, Duncan MacDonald was not surprised by the colt's fancy, ground-saving footwork. Piloted by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Giacomo weaved neatly around horses and darted through narrow spaces as if he was a Ferrari: fast, responsive, and agile. It was something MacDonald, the broodmare manager at Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington, had seen before - albeit in a less polished form - back in the early spring of 2002, when Giacomo was a foal cavorting around his dam.

"Even when he was just a few days old, we always thought he'd be a racehorse, because he was very quick and athletic," said MacDonald of Giacomo, a son of Holy Bull. "He wasn't the most muscular, developed sort of foal, but we felt he just had something about him."

Like other horsemen involved with Giacomo in his younger days, MacDonald noted that nothing ever seemed to go awry with the colt, from his uneventful birth on Feb. 16, 2002, until he crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs. While he wasn't always flashy, three of Giacomo's earliest handlers say, he did show signs of the qualities they believe helped him to become a classic winner - athleticism, smarts, and a love of running. Now all three - MacDonald, Mill Ridge yearling manager Donnie Snellings, and Florida trainer Robert Harris, who oversaw Giacomo's breaking - feel a certain pride about the foundation they laid for him at Mill Ridge, owned by Alice and Dr. John Chandler, and at Harris Training Center in Williston, Fla.

MacDonald was not present when Giacomo's dam, Set Them Free, gave birth to the colt in 2002, but he recalled noticing a lively athleticism right away.

"He was quicker than the average foal," MacDonald, 54, said last week. "He was tall and narrow, but he did seem to have extraordinary coordination. The way he moved around the paddock, even as a foal, you'd see that even though his legs went all over the place, he still had the balance to be agile."

Under MacDonald's care, Giacomo and about 90 other foals that year at Mill Ridge learned the basic lessons of being handled, groomed, and having their hooves trimmed by the farrier. There wasn't a lot of opportunity to show flashes of brilliance, but the foal caught MacDonald's eye.

"I didn't know what his fortune might be, but I just knew he was a racehorse," MacDonald said.

"I thought it was absolutely phenomenal, the way that he won, the way he came through horses. It seemed that he was guided by a greater force to get through those horses, and he had tremendous luck to do everything he did. He's not a massive, heavy horse with pure speed, but he's got the ability to get where he needs to go."

Donnie Snellings got a sample of that ability immediately after Giacomo was weaned and arrived in Mill Ridge's yearling barn. Since Giacomo's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, planned to race him rather than sell him, Giacomo was called a "keeper." Sent to the yearling barn in late October 2002, Giacomo was turned out in a 30-acre field with about a dozen other colts.

"The first time I laid eyes on him, I was looking at his rear end as he was running down that field," Snellings said. "It took us three or four days to get him caught. He got hooked up with this little Cozzene colt we had. They'd come to a new field with new people, because my crew is totally different from Duncan's. Everything was new to them, and he just took off in that field. We got five or six guys out there trying to catch him. We'd get on one end, and he'd bug off to the other end. When we'd get to that end, he'd bug off back to the first end. That's why I know this horse can run a long way! And he was a good mover. I can attest to that from his straight-lining me."

As Snellings put it, he was a "shepherd" for Giacomo. His job was to get the colt safely into his yearling season until it was time for him to be broken. Giacomo spent most of that time galloping and grazing in Mill Ridge's vast, gently sloping pastures; being groomed or fed in his stall; and having the many small procedures that horses must undergo, such as vaccinations and hoof trimming. It was a low-pressure environment designed to let the yearlings grow and mature. Giacomo, Snellings said, was smart, and handling him was relatively straightforward - except for those infamous few days when he refused to be caught.

"He was a little skittish to begin with, but he settled right down," Snellings said, noting that Set Them Free's foals have generally been easy going.

When Giacomo left Mill Ridge for Florida to be broken in the summer of 2003, Snellings said he thought he would make a nice horse, but he didn't have any visions of roses.

"He got bigger and longer and stronger, but basically he was still a tall, lanky gray colt," Snellings said. "He looked like a 14-year-old kid who was going to play basketball. But there's no way to tell until they win."

When Giacomo left Mill Ridge, he shipped to the small town of Williston, not far from Ocala. This was where his studies began in earnest. In the hands of Robert Harris and his wife, Mary, at Harris Training Center, Giacomo felt a saddle and rider for the first time, learned what the starting gate was, and began galloping like a real racehorse. He was one of about 80 horses the Harrises broke that season, and once he got under saddle, Giacomo was a standout.

"He was a big colt, kind of gangly, but he was a smart, smart horse who was always way ahead of the other yearlings mentally," Harris said. "Did I think he was a Derby horse? I had no idea he'd be that kind, but I thought he was an awful nice horse."

By the time Giacomo shipped out in May, he knew how to stand quietly in the gate, gallop professionally, and turn a good two-minute lick.

"We weren't doing anything fancy, just putting a good foundation in him," Harris said.

As Giacomo's lessons increased, he thrived. Like MacDonald and Snellings, Harris recalled no accidents, no glitches, no unlucky injuries, and no setbacks. In retrospect, Giacomo seems to have had a dream run, the kind of luck it takes for a horse to stay in contention for the classics.

"He was a forward horse with a great attitude, and even just standing there, he was a pretty horse that had all the parts, and John could see down the road what this colt was going to be," Harris said, referring to Giacomo's trainer, John Shirreffs. "He was the kind of colt that, when we did our set list, I could put anybody on him. Everybody that rode him wanted to keep getting on him, because he did everything right. He's just a neat horse."