05/03/2006 11:00PM

Giacomo influence reverberates

Giacomo's 50-1 upset in last year's Kentucky Derby has handicappers considering several outsiders this year, including Flashy Bull (above).

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Shirreffs is to blame. It is his fault that reasoned analysis of the 2006 Kentucky Derby has disintegrated into a pile of frustrating rubble, accompanied by shrugs, growls, and sighs.

After all, Shirreffs did have the gall to bring Giacomo to the 2005 Kentucky Derby, prepared to unleash the best race of his young life over a distance at which he was crying to run. All he needed was a fast pace (he got it), a little luck (just enough), and the deed was done. The fact that he was 50-1 seemed to have no impact on either the horse or his Hall of Fame rider, Mike Smith.

The 2005 Derby was, however, an apparent affront to all things both handicapping and holy. Giacomo's win was a slap in the face, a kick in the gut, an embarrassing breeze let loose in a great racing cathedral.

The ensuing dozen months have been filled with a systematic denigration of Giacomo's victory. It started out as a "subpar" Derby, then quickly acquired such additional descriptives as disappointing, forgettable, wretched, flukey, and, in some circles, downright left-wing and un-American.

Respected analysts took the Giacomo result personally, as if they had a tangible stake in promoting the most predictable Kentucky Derby outcomes. (Okay, they do.) As a result, what had become a media cottage industry of pre-Derby opinions - some of them not only entertaining, but also refreshingly correct - has this year turned shrill and fatalistic, featuring five minutes of traditional handicapping logic followed by the exasperated disclaimer:

"After Giacomo last year, anything can happen."

It used to read, "In the Kentucky Derby, anything can happen," which was true, as long as "anything" was limited to a list of variables that included pace, track condition, soundness, jockey error, and rotten luck. There were surprises, but they were quickly forgiven, and the experts were gracious, acknowledging their errors when colts such as Thunder Gulch, War Emblem, or Ferdinand slipped between the parimutuel cracks.

This year, a lot of handicappers have gone existential, flailing against the hopelessness of their endeavors. It's as if Giacomo had single-handedly debunked fundamental philosophies held dear for centuries by true believers. Call him the winner of the DaVinci Derby, and cry havoc. All is lost.

"If anything can happen, does that mean we don't need all the handicappers anymore?" wondered Shirreffs, who will be trying to win his second straight Derby with A. P. Warrior.

The answer is no, let's keep them around. After all, they're doing work most Americans won't do.

Horsemen without delusions know the variables, and they share them, up to a point, at Derby time. Read enough between the lines issued by trainers, and it is clear there are horses who could never fit the "anything can happen" theory of handicapping, short of lightning striking dead the other 19 in the gate.

Some owners and trainers arrived on the wings of honest, though half-baked dreams, lacking the experience to know what it takes to be competitive in a rodeo like the Derby. They'll get it, the hard way, and hopefully not at the expense of their horse.

Still others weigh the risks and figure they are worth the rewards, since finishing second, third, or even fourth in the Kentucky Derby is no embarrassment. Unless, of course, it's a Derby won by Giacomo.

On the plus side, the "anything can happen" theory of handicapping has been liberating. Flashy Bull and Deputy Glitters are being given long, hard looks. Sharp Rumor is imagined as the speed horse who will stick around to the end. And a horse who violates practically every established rule of Derby indicators is causing sane horseplayers to tremble in defensive fear, all because of the man who trains him.

Before 2003, Barclay Tagg would not have been on the short list of influential classic horsemen, primarily because he had never run a horse in the Derby. He was appreciated in his own land and applauded when good horses came his way. Then Funny Cide happened, and the wider world learned that Tagg was the kind of guy who never made a move without good reason.

Now he is trying to win his second Derby in as many starts with Showing Up, a horse who did not run at age 2, raced only three times this year, and has yet to face a single member of the group on top of everyone's list.

"This is one of the most powerful bunch of horses I've ever seen in a Derby," Tagg said Wednesday from New York. "And a lot of them are just maturing this time of year. They go through a lot of changes. You could say some of them have already run their Derby, while others are coming up to it good."

Showing Up, winner of the Lexington Stakes in his last start, is a son of the Mr. Prospector stallion Strategic Mission, bred and owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson of West Grove, Pa. They also have Barbaro in the Derby.

"I feel lucky to have this horse," Tagg said. "I don't know if he can go a mile and a quarter - he hasn't run farther than a mile and one-sixteenth - but he just does nothing wrong, and he shows no tendencies that anything would bother him. I don't want to sound like an idiot and say my horse can't get beat, but I wouldn't be coming if I thought this wasn't the right thing to do."

Especially since anything can happen. Almost.