05/10/2005 11:00PM

Lo Duca hits Derby home run


MIAMI - Florida Marlins catcher Paul Lo Duca had been looking forward to watching Giacomo compete in the Kentucky Derby for several months. A close friend of jockey Mike Smith, Lo Duca jumped on the Giacomo bandwagon early this winter, showed his loyalty by backing the lightly regarded colt in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, and never lost faith even after several somewhat disappointing performances left Giacomo a 50-1 longshot in the Derby.

Lo Duca knew all along he could not be at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The major league baseball schedule doesn't allow for a day off on the first Saturday in May. But as the 20 Derby runners neared the starting gate, Lo Duca feared he was also going to miss the race on television, with his team still on the field in the top of the first inning against the Colorado Rockies.

"I knew I was in trouble with post time for the Derby at 6:04 and our game scheduled to start at 6:05," Lo Duca said in the Marlins clubhouse before Monday night's game against the Houston Astros.

Fortunately for Lo Duca, post time for the Derby was delayed, and his pitcher, Josh Beckett, made short work of the Rockies in the top of the first.

"I came off the field and Coxie [Marlins third base coach Jeff Cox] yelled to me that they were just going into the gate," said Lo Duca. "I bolted into the clubhouse just as they broke. When [Tom] Durkin called Giacomo's name coming into the stretch I got so excited I think I punched the clubhouse guy in the chest. And when he won I started yelling and screaming so loud they heard me all the way up in the dugout."

Lo Duca would not reveal the size of the bet he placed on Giacomo, admitting only that it was "a decent wager."

While most professional handicappers were hard-pressed to come up with a single reason to wager on one of the longest-priced winners in Kentucky Derby history, Lo Duca reeled off a litany of factors that gave him confidence Giacomo could win the world's most prestigious horse race.

"I've liked Giacomo since he won his maiden," Lo Duca said. "Since then he's competed against the best horses on the West Coast and ran some good races. He beat Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko a couple of times, and that was a horse a lot of people felt could win the Derby. His race in the Santa Anita Derby wasn't as bad as most thought, since he's a plodder and there wasn't a lot of pace in that race. Santa Anita is a tough track to close on anyway, and Giacomo is a one-paced horse who just wasn't made for the West Coast.

"I knew there would be a lot of pace in the Derby," Lo Duca added. "I also felt there were a lot of question marks when it came to many of the favorites getting the mile and one-quarter, and Giacomo is bred to get a distance. And besides, his price was asinine."

Of course, having Smith as one of his closest friends was also a big factor in Lo Duca's allegiance to the horse. The pair met several years ago in California when Lo Duca was playing for the Dodgers.

"I would have played him anyway, but Mike liked this horse a long time ago," said Lo Duca. "He told me John Shirreffs is a very patient trainer and that they were bringing him along slow, that he wasn't 100 percent fit for his earlier races, but that he'd be at his best for the Derby. I called Mike on Saturday morning and told him I had a good feeling about the race, and he was just as confident."

While Lo Duca's profession is baseball, his passion is horse racing.

"I began going to the racetrack when I was just a kid," said Lo Duca, a 33-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y. "My dad owned and raced horses at Turf Paradise when I was growing up. I've had 10 or 15 of my own in partnerships over the years, although I'm down to only two at the moment. I've had some good luck with most of my horses and even had one, Night Bokbel, who finished second in a Grade 3 race at Bay Meadows."

Now that Lo Duca has firmly established himself in south Florida - he recently signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Marlins - he is considering acquiring some horses to race at nearby Calder and Gulfstream Park.

"I was really hoping Doug [O'Neill] would bring a string down here this winter," said Lo Duca. "He does an unbelievable job, and I've really done well with him. But eventually I'm sure I'll get some horses to race here."

Some of Lo Duca's teammates were still ribbing him on Monday about his Derby success.

"Thanks for holding out on us," third baseman Mike Lowell shouted across the clubhouse to Lo Duca. "I guess you didn't want us to ruin the price."

"I tried to tell everybody in our clubhouse before the Derby about the horse, but nobody listened," Lo Duca said. "Now they all want me to give them the winner of the Preakness."