09/24/2007 12:00AM

It's a three-star day for Shirreffs

EmailFor a guy who doesn't seem to crave the limelight, John Shirreffs keeps putting himself there by virtue of his training ability. Every year, it seems, Shirreffs comes up with a top-class horse, from Bertrando to Manistique, Hollywood Story to Giacomo. This year, though, he's doing it in triplicate.

Shirreffs heads into the fall of 2007 with his deepest lineup yet. He has three outstanding horses with Breeders' Cup aspirations, and all three are running in BC prep races on Saturday.

Tiago, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Swaps Stakes, is scheduled to take on older horses for the first time in the $500,000 Goodwood Stakes, a prep for the Oct.o27 BC Classic at Monmouth Park. The rapidly improving filly Imagine will make her stakes debut in the $400,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes, a prep for the BC Filly and Mare Turf. Those two races are at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

And on the East Coast, After Market - the best grass horse in the West, perhaps the country - will compete in the Grade 2, $250,000 Kelso Handicap at Belmont, which will serve as his prep for the BC Mile.

"It's hard to imagine having all three at once," said Shirreffs, who will remain in California to saddle Tiago and Imagine. "I've had Manistique, Giacomo, but it was all separate. It's hard to compare anything to this. Tiago, After Market, and the filly is really coming around. It's always fun to have those kind."

Shirreffs, 62, has been a respected trainer in California for a little more than a decade, when he finally parked himself at the track after shuttling for years among the racetrack, training centers, and farms. In a short amount of time, he has won many of the West's major races, including the Santa Anita Derby, Hollywood Oaks, Hollywood Starlet, Goodwood, San Luis Rey Stakes, Vanity Handicap, and three runnings of the Santa Margarita Handicap.

He became better known nationally two years ago, when Giacomo scored an upset victory in the Kentucky Derby.

His skill has attracted the attention of some of the sport's most prominent and well-heeled owners, such as Jerry and Ann Moss, who own Giacomo and his half-brother Tiago, and Marty and Pam Wygod, who own After Market and Imagine. But for someone who has won a Derby and has raced in it three straight years, and has a powerful barn, Shirreffs is unaffected.

Shirreffs, a Vietnam vet whose wife, Dottie, is the racing manager for the Mosses, is a track rat. He prefers the solitude of the barn after training hours, when he can observe his horses without distraction. He rarely gets into a winner's circle photo, preferring to admire his horse and watch the joy of his owners.

This summer at Del Mar, Shirreffs agonized over whether to run Tiago in the Pacific Classic, and finally decided against it because - like many other trainers - he was not pleased with the Polytrack surface there. So, when Tiago races in the Goodwood, it will be his first start since the Swaps on July 14 on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track surface.

Tiago won the Santa Anita Derby in only his fourth start, then was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and a deceptively good third in the Belmont Stakes.

"He's gotten through all those big races," Shirreffs said. "The experience will help a horse like that if it doesn't destroy them. He was always playing catch-up in the spring. He didn't have a lot of races going into the Triple Crown. Being by Pleasant Tap, he should get better with age.

"I'm not sure if the time off since the Swaps is a plus or a minus. I'd have liked to have kept him on a schedule of running every month to six weeks. After a little break, you have to wonder how he'll respond. But he's training brilliantly."

After Market, a Storm Cat colt, has won the Inglewood, Whittingham, Eddie Read, and Del Mar Handicap in successive starts, ranging from 1o1/16 miles to 1 3/8 miles. He's shortening up to one mile for the Kelso in the belief that the Mile is a more suitable Breeders' Cup race for him than the 1 1/2-mile Turf.

"Have you ever seen a Storm Cat go a mile and a half?" he asked rhetorically on Monday.

"It's difficult to say what his best distance is. He stalks well, and he has a kick."

Imagine, by Giant's Causeway, has displayed sharp progress this summer. She has won 3 of her last 4 starts, including a restricted stakes race toward the end of Del Mar's meeting. She is lightly raced, with just seven starts. Shirreffs said he thinks there is plenty of upside.

"She hasn't had a lot of experience, but she's got a great stride on her," he said. "She just floats over the ground. She's got a lot of class. This will be a big step for her. She hasn't run in a graded stakes, but she's got a lot of ability. I thought her last race was great. I loved the fact she settled and then finished so strongly. In the morning she's headstrong, but in the afternoon she shows a different dimension."