05/11/2005 12:00AM

Giacomo leaves 'em laughing


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Who needs a Triple Crown winner? Or all those Rip Torn commercials? Or even a "Seabiscuit" sequel? Horse racing suddenly has a lovable longshot named Giacomo, an overnight major media magnet providing both high drama and low humor.

Those who didn't hit at 50-1 can at least laugh in the aftermath. Save the bitter tears for real tragedies, like a war without end, or the next album by Bjork. After all, it's only horses running in a circle. In the wake of last Saturday's dizzy Kentucky Derby, some of the best and brightest are stepping up with Giacomo jokes and routines, led by America's foremost closet horse racing fan, David Letterman.

Letterman devoted a significant amount of valuable late night network time on his Monday show to Giacomo's Derby upset, beginning with videotape of the race, slightly doctored, that depicted a horse with an ignited tail zooming past the field.

"Immediately after, a stewards' inquiry went up," Letterman deadpanned. "What it looked like to me was that the horse had some sort of rocket strapped to its ass."

Biff Henderson, Letterman's blue collar version of Charles Kuralt, shared his Derby adventure at Churchill Downs that included a mint julep drinking binge and lines like, "Did you know that the ladies consider me the most exciting two minutes in the bedroom?" and "Do you mind if I try on your hat?"

There was a touching moment in the jockeys' room as well, when Biff, surrounded on a couch by Mark Guidry, John Velazquez, and Mike Smith, confessed, "You know, you guys are so cute, I'd like to put you in my pocket and take you home."

To no one's surprise, Biff bet on Giacomo. Whether it was before or after the race, it didn't really matter.

Back in the studio, Letterman's Top Ten Tips for Winning the Kentucky Derby was inevitably read by Mike Smith, center stage, wearing white pants, boots and the silks of Ann and Jerry Moss. The best of the Ten were No. 6 (Starter will let you out of gate early if you slip him a twenty), No. 4 (Two words: vibrating saddle), and No. 2 (To eliminate wind resistance, shave your horse). And the No. 1 tip for winning the Kentucky Derby: "It helps if your trainer is Jose Canseco."

For those who find joy in a glass half full, Giacomo also contributed to a bad day for the owner of a certain professional baseball team, as Jay Leno noted in his "Tonight Show" opening monologue Monday night. The zingers went like this:

"Let's see, it's about 11:40 so George Steinbrenner's horse should be crossing the finish line any time now." (laughs) "I think he was hoping to use the horse to distance himself from the Yankees." (laughs) "The Kentucky Derby winner was Giacomo." (smattering of applause) "Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's horse Bellamy Road finished seventh." (cheers) "In fact, George gave the horse a new name today . . . Yankee Stadium Hot Dog." (groans and laughs)

Humor, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's belly laugh is another's stifled yawn, and Derby winners, as a rule, are not particularly funny. Once in awhile, a horse comes along to crack the deadly serious facade of the whole Triple Crown enterprise, yet it is impossible to predict which one it will be. As a test, compare and contrast recent Derby winners for automatic laughs:

Fusaichi Pegasus - not unless Buddy Hackett says the name.

Monarchos - ran too fast to be funny.

War Emblem - lone front-runners are never funny.

Funny Cide - made Barclay Tagg smile; now that's funny.

Smarty Jones - more way cool and hip than ha-ha funny.

Giacomo - see, there . . . you smiled!

New York satirist Andy Borowitz took time off from daily taunts directed at politicians, Fox News, and Ben Affleck to report the pseudo-news headline, "Derby Winner Launches Fragrance," a perfume to be called Whoa by Giacomo.

"Giacomo's decision to launch a celebrity fragrance caught many in the perfume industry by surprise, since no horse-based scent has ever had mass-market success at the nation's cosmetic counters," Borowitz noted.

"But Jesse Diblanco, who heads up the consumer products division of Team Giacomo, dismisses such nay-saying, claiming that Giacomo is an exception to the rule: 'He's not a horse, he's a brand.'

"Within the racing industry, some observers are voicing their concern that Giacomo's sudden plunge into the world of celebrity culture may hurt his chances of winning the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness.

"In addition to launching his fragrance, Giacomo has been seen partying in recent days with such staples of the club circuit as Paris Hilton and white-hot teen starlet Lindsay Lohan. Late Monday night, for example, reporters spotted Giacomo stumbling back to his stall, trailing empty bottles of Cristal champagne in his wake.

"Racing insider Dobie Grossman worries that for Giacomo, the Derby success was a case of too much, too soon: 'Remember, at the end of the day, he's only three years old.' "

Racing fans, enjoy it while you can. Something like this can happen only once a year, if at all, no matter how much time Letterman spends in wishful thinking.

"It's such an exciting event," Letterman said. "It kicks off the Triple Crown, and it's so successful that they're talking about having it every Saturday."