07/23/2006 11:00PM

Giacomo earns some respect

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DEL MAR, Calif. - At last, the long, agonizing slog through one of racing's darkest swamps has ended. A ray of light has wormed its way through the gloom. The voices of children can be heard once again above the wailing. There is hope.

Giacomo has finally won.

Oh, the misery of these past dozen months, as the grim betrayal of the 2005 Triple Crown weighed so heavily on the hearts and minds of its most devoted acolytes. Giacomo, the villainous cur, stole what was supposed to be America's most glorious racing moment with his totally unpredictable first-place finish in the 131st Kentucky Derby, rendering the whole business meaningless and deflating the spirits of a desperate people hungry for a wide-eyed, uncomplicated hero.

Instead they got Giacomo, dusky gray, forgettable in profile, and all but anonymous except for a mocking few postrace moments by David Letterman. His Derby was being denigrated as a criminal fluke before the ink on the deadly Beyers was even dry. Purists longing for the clean, certain days of, say, Strike the Gold and Sea Hero, were roused to public storm, and every subsequent step taken by little Afleet Alex - the aggrieved party - pounded another nail into the gallows being readied for Giacomo's only possible act of contrition.

At some point during the ensuing months, as Giacomo malingered on the sidelines, having the bad taste to sustain only minor chip fractures, his name was summoned as root cause for just about everything unholy. Middle Eastern unrest, terrorist bombings, Dick Cheney's aim, global warming - all were laid at the feet of the idle colt. Even the National Hurricane Center got in the act, briefly considering a name change of its seventh 2005 storm system from Gert to Giacomo, until a midlevel analyst pointed out that "hurricanes are fast and full of power, and that ain't Giacomo." Ouch.

All the while, the handful of outcast radicals who actually cashed on Giacomo at odds of 50-1 continued to meet in dark caves and abandoned tenements, clutching together in protective covens until it was safe once again to emerge into civilized society.

It never happened. In fact, they were driven deeper into hiding over the winter, when their frustrating patron saint returned as a 4-year-old and followed a so-so second in the 2006 Strub Stakes with a total bust in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Then, this spring, the Giacomists were temporarily reprieved by the golden glow of Barbaro, a real Derby winner - assertive, handsome, and without apparent flaw. Only in terms of species equus did they compare. Giacomo, though not forgiven, was at least forgotten. Then Barbaro broke down and it was back to Giacomo as the only Derby winner still trying to be a real racehorse.

It figured to end that way for Giacomo, as a footnote, as a brief, unsatisfying fantasy, until last Saturday at giddy Del Mar, where a crowd of more than 19,000 - baked by sun and whiskey sours - were confronted with the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner in all his tattered glory.

True to their Mardi Gras mentality, the fans seemed blissfully oblivious of Giacomo's past transgressions. They applauded him in the paddock, hailed him on the track, and rose in admiration for his gritty come-from-nowhere win in the San Diego Handicap, a race that meant virtually nothing in a national sense, but everything to trainer John Shirreffs, jockey Mike Smith, and owners Ann and Jerry Moss.

"I've never really felt that he had to redeem himself, or prove anything to anyone," Smith said later, as the San Diego sunk in. "But for him to go out there and run like he did, it was pretty cool."

And there you have it, sports fans. Learn it, know it, live it. Fast or slow, favored or otherwise, Kentucky Derby winners can come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But one thing is absolutely certain - they are always cool.

Next best thing to being there

Rumor has it that Saratoga, the Del Mar of the East, is opening on Wednesday. And while the racing there may be pretty darn good, the most recent publication with a Saratoga hook is worth its weight in beefsteak tomatoes.

"The Best of the Saratoga Special" ($25, ST Publishing, Inc.) is a handsome, flip-and-scan, pause-and-savor, bedside table kind of book that will far outlast the narrow confines of its stated mandate. More than just the highlights from the first five years of the little newspaper that could, this volume comes fully equipped with an old soul, steeped in racing's richest lore, thanks to the words of Sean Clancy and his brother Joe (or is it Joe Clancy and his brother Sean?) and the images of Barbara Livingston, Dave Harmon, and Tod Marks.

Impossible as it is to be in both places at once, "The Best of the Saratoga Special" at least captures place and time in sufficient amounts to be the perfect companion for an August midday spent on the beach at Del Mar. A little sand between the pages won't hurt a bit.