02/24/2006 12:00AM

It's time for Giacomo to ante up

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PHOENIX - The racing world will get a nice boost if Giacomo runs big in next Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

For various reasons, most of the last 14 Kentucky Derby winners have not raced at 4 or made little impact beyond the Triple Crown.

After Strike the Gold and Lil E. Tee won graded stakes at 4, Sea Hero and Go for Gin failed to thrive beyond 3. Thunder Gulch got hurt. So did Grindstone. Thankfully, we had good older seasons from Silver Charm and Real Quiet, but then Charismatic, Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, and War Emblem either didn't race or did little at 4.

Funny Cide hasn't been on top of his game the last year or so, but at least won a graded stakes as an older horse.

Then, Smarty Jones came and went.

So the racing game looks to its most recent Derby winner, Giacomo, to carry that banner on to new accomplishments. Or at least some decent races.

After the Triple Crown it appeared that Giacomo might be finished, like so many of the other recent Derby winners. He had surgery after a poor run in the Belmont in June 2005 and missed the rest of the year. His return performance this year, however, in the Grade 2 Strub, was encouraging. He was no match for the big winner, High Limit, but he ran on well, giving promise as to what may lie ahead.

Now Giacomo has had his warm-up race, and he has worked well since. It's no longer time to think about possibilities or preps; it's time to ante up. Giacomo has grown up, too. The lanky, somewhat gawky 3-year-old of last year has put on weight and bulked up. That gawky 3-year-old now appears all grown up - cut, well proportioned, strong, and lean.

In the Strub he did what he normally does - bide his time toward the back early. He made a sustained run on the far turn, and for just a second he made you sit up and think that maybe, just maybe . . .

But the moment was fleeting. He hesitated when he hit traffic and didn't maintain his momentum.

He now has a legitimate chance to exact revenge on High Limit in the Santa Anita Handicap. Giacomo not only might relish the extra furlong of this 1 1/4-mile race, he also might get help on the front end.

High Limit was considered a question mark at 1 1/8 miles in the Strub, particularly since he usually had raced on the lead. But he answered the questions by stalking the pace, taking over with ease, and powering home - looking as if he could have gone around the track another couple of times. But if High Limit doesn't relax as well again next Saturday, he might get used up a bit early on what might be a hot pace.

With Distinction is a top sprinter, so you know what he's going to do, head for the front. Lava Man also has plenty of speed and doesn't figure to run far from the front. Spellbinder has shown he can sit on top of route fractions and keep going. In other words, even if High Limit stalks, things still can get hot for him when he makes his move. If High Limit moves with a half-mile to go, as he did in the Strub, it's quite likely that Lava Man also will be cranking up just then, and Spellbinder still will be applying pace pressure.

Meanwhile, Giacomo could lay toward the back, lengthen his stride down the backside, and slowly build momentum. While the speed types and pace-pressers begin to go toe to toe, he can be gathering momentum.

And when they hit the turn he can be in full flight, ready to take advantage of any horse who's not ready to go the 10th furlong, just as he did in the Derby. There will be horses hoping for the wire to come; then there will be Giacomo rumbling all out toward that wire.

A victory by Giacomo would be well deserved for his connections, particularly trainer John Shirreffs, who has taken his time getting the horse back to action. It would also dispel the nagging notion that the horse that wins America's biggest race will fail to take up the banner and run with it.