05/03/2005 11:00PM

Looking for the big one this time

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Ann and Jerry Moss had not been to Derby week festivities since 1994, when Sardula won the Kentucky Oaks for them. The Moss colors will be borne in this year's Kentucky Derby by Giacomo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Derby week of 1994 looked more like valet parking at some Hollywood bash. Composer Burt Bacharach, Motown's Berry Gordy, and James Bond franchise owner Cubby Broccoli all had starters in the big dance, while Jerry Moss of A&M Records fame was running Sardula in the Kentucky Oaks the day before.

The show-biz reunion was a kick for all concerned, but when the dust finally settled and the two races were in the books, Bacharach, Gordy, and Broccoli had to settle for the privilege of hanging out with the guy who won the Oaks.

Memories of Sardula came flooding back Wednesday afternoon as Moss watched Giacomo, his first Derby starter, settle into Barn 45 on the Churchill Downs backstretch after a flight from Southern California. The Oaks was the high point of Sardula's shooting-star career, which ended in the worst way possible with a fatal bone infection. She is buried beneath a towering California oak on a hillside in the tiny town of Los Olivos, near the clinic where she died.

"She was a beautiful filly," Moss says when reminded, lowering both voice and eyes. "Her death was a real loss for us."

This is the first Derby week trip since Sardula's triumph for Moss and his wife, Ann, whose work as a founder of the Dolphin Project is held in high esteem among those concerned with the protection of the species. Jerry Moss no longer owns A&M - it was sold to Polygram - but he had success with his subsequent Almo Records venture, and he continues to head the Rondor Music publishing company, with its vast catalog of popular songs and artists.

Moss also serves as a commissioner on the California Horse Racing Board, which is technically defined as a part-time job.

"Then why do I seem to be thinking about it all the time," Moss said, and he had a point. The current CHRB has its plate full, with such issues as expanded drug testing, sagging business, and unrest among the corporate giants - Magna and Churchill Downs - that own major California tracks.

Moss is off duty this week and concentrating on Giacomo, whose last race was a fourth-place effort in the Santa Anita Derby won by Buzzards Bay. It was not a bad race at all, but by most of the modern-day measures, they are shooting for the moon. Giacomo has never won a stakes race. He has yet to win beyond 1 1/16 miles. And he has never impressed the handicappers who compile speed figures.

Still, there are threads to the Giacomo tale could prompt a second look, and not just because he bears the name of a rock star's son.

"He's named for Giacomo Sumner," Moss explained. "Sting's youngest son."

Yes, that Sting, as in A&M recording star Sting, aka Gordon Sumner and former chief of The Police, whose solo hit "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" was released in 1990 and eventually found its way to a set of Jockey Club registration papers.

Giacomo is out of Set Them Free, a foal of 1990 and a stoutly bred daughter of Stop the Music who never really had a chance to prove herself beyond sprint stakes. Giacomo's sire is Holy Bull, the heavy favorite in that 1994 Derby whose abject failure remains one of those weird anomalies, offering no rhyme or reason based upon the balance of his brilliant, Horse of the Year career.

"To this day I don't know what happened," said Mike Smith, Holy Bull's rider. "I mean, I was out of horse the first time we went under the wire."

At this point it should be mentioned that Smith, a member of the Hall of Fame, has been the only jockey to ever ride Giacomo, and for good reason.

"The first day I got on him, before he ever ran, I told John that this was my Derby horse, right here," Smith said, referring to trainer John Shirreffs. "He reminded me more of any Holy Bull I'd ever seen - not as big as Holy Bull, and not as aggressive, but just in the way he carries himself."

Shirreffs is one of those half-horse trainers who has been dealing with the breed since forever. His handling of Giacomo since last summer smacks of an old-school progression that is reminiscent of the way Charlie Whittingham brought Ferdinand to the 1986 Derby.

Both colts moved from maiden victories in the autumn to run well in the Hollywood Futurity - Ferdinand was third to Snow Chief, while Giacomo finished second to Declan's Moon. In early 1986, Ferdinand competed in four stakes at Santa Anita, winning one and running third to Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby. Giacomo ran in three stakes out West this winter, running second in the San Felipe Stakes in addition to his fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

"He's never had anything go just right," Shirreffs said. "But the best thing about him is that he fires every time, and he's always finishing. Maybe he'll have a few things go his way in the Derby."

Smith, still looking for his first Derby win, will not be surprised if it happens. Since the Santa Anita Derby, he has watched Shirreffs strop Giacomo like a razor.

"To win it would be unreal," Smith said. "Imagine if he could do that, even things up for his daddy."