04/08/2007 11:00PM

Little brother has 'em humming


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mr. X is back, the guy in the shades and the Mill Ridge cap, trying hard not to be noticed but failing miserably at the task.

To be honest, his cover was blown two years ago. Winning a Kentucky Derby will do that to you. But even with a second straight appearance at the Derby in 2006, John Shirreffs was able to return to the safety of his personal witness protection program, keeping his rugged California profile low while waiting for the next big thing to come along.

True to his style, Shirreffs tiptoed gently into last Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby with Tiago, far below the radar, basically figuring he had nothing to lose. After all, about the only thing Tiago had going for him - on paper anyway - was the fact that his half-brother Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby at 50-1.

When Giacomo, a son of Holy Bull, was asked to run in the Santa Anita Derby, he finished fourth to Buzzards Bay, General John B., and Wilko. Those not suffering from short-term memory loss will recall that 2005 was the year of the great West Coast Malignment at the Kentucky Derby, when the California team was described as more suited to pulling the water truck than participating in America's most famous race. Then they finished first, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the field of 20.

But that was then. Tiago is now.

When he awoke last Saturday, Tiago was, in his own mind at least, a horse still innocent in the ways of winning a race. His only "victory" in three starts came on a disqualification.

"It was a big step for him," Shirreffs conceded. "But there was no pressure. If he doesn't win, his career takes a different path. Simple as that."

Welcome to Glory Road. At the end of the mile and one-eighth, marked by more lead changes than a Peewee hockey game, it was Tiago darting through a wide-open inside, answering to a series of deft moves by Mike Smith to beat the dead-game King of the Roxy by half a length and send owners Ann and Jerry Moss back to the big show with Shirreffs for the second time in three years.

Shirreffs stood in the middle of the track as the Tiago winner's circle transpired, admiring the view from a safe distance. He is not necessarily camera-shy, nor particularly eccentric. The 61-year-old former bullrider and Vietnam vet simply has his own way of celebrating.

"Don't get me wrong, it's great to win a race like this," Shirreffs said. "For me, though, it's being around a good horse. That makes it fun. And this could be a good horse."

Tiago is Portuguese for Giacomo, which works just fine, since both Giacomo and Tiago were named for sons of famous recording stars who played for the A&M label of Jerry Moss and his partner, Herb Alpert. Giacomo's dad is Gordon Sumner, who also answers to Sting, while Tiago's papa is Sergio Mendes, who was churning out hits for Moss with Brasil '66 while little Mr. Sumner was still in knee pants. Agua de beber, baby.

"Has a mare ever produced two Derby winners?" wondered Jerry Moss at the postrace press conference. The Mosses got both Giacomo and Tiago courtesy of Set Them Free, a daughter of Stop the Music.

The short answer is no, it has never occurred in 132 years' worth of Kentucky Derbies, although it hasn't been for lack of trying.

Whirlaway's half-brother Reaping Reward preceded him by four years with a third in the 1937 Derby. Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, was out of Iron Reward, a daughter of Iron Maiden, who also produced 1957 Derby winner Iron Liege.

Farther afield, Seattle Slew's half-brother Lomond won the English 2000 Guineas on Derby Day of 1983. Does that count? Unbridled's full brother Cahill Road got as far as winning the Wood Memorial before he went wrong. And then there was Charismatic's half-brother Millennium Wind, who won the 2001 Blue Grass but was well beaten in the Derby.

For current purposes, it is probably best to focus on the Stage Door Johnny mare Never Knock, dam of the 1994 Kentucky Derby winner, Go for Gin, as well as the colt who finished third to Unbridled in the 1990 Derby. His name was Pleasant Tap, the sire of Tiago.

Asked to compare and contrast the brothers, the literal-minded Shirreffs warmed up with the obligatory "one's bay and the other gray" before settling into the straight story.

"Put it this way," Shirreffs said. "If Giacomo was a wide receiver, Tiago is your linebacker. He packs a much more powerful turn of foot, where Giacomo had that beautiful way of just galloping along, never getting tired."

Unlike the dramatic Giacomo - who saved his best race for the most important day of a horse's life - all the ingredients are in place to appreciate Tiago before he does something really spectacular. Shirreffs just laughed when a smart-mouth asked if maybe his colt hadn't peaked too soon, then began working his way through the crowd, following Tiago back to the test barn. Along the way the trainer signed autographs and glad-handed fans, all of them giddy at the chance the old Giacomo jive might be rocking again.

Go ahead . . . tell them they're wrong.