06/09/2005 12:00AM

No-frills, hands-on horseman

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Giacomo with trainer John Shirreffs, who will stand and stare at a horse for hours, just to figure out what makes the horse happy.

ELMONT, N.Y - John Shirreffs was on his fourth or fifth television interview of the morning, this one with ESPN's Kenny Mayne, and Mayne was having a hard time believing what he was hearing.

Mayne: So, I hear you don't bet.

Shirreffs: That's right.

Mayne: You don't like to bet.

Shirreffs: No, I don't.

Mayne: You're telling me you're not sorry you didn't bet on him at 50-1 in the Derby.

Shirreffs: I don't bet.

It went on like that for another 20 minutes or so, with Mayne holding on like a bulldog, trying to get Shirreffs to break. A lesser man would have caved - this was, after all, ESPN - but Shirreffs just smiled and stuck to his guns. When the interview aired, Mayne's audience would have to deal with the agonizing contradictions. How is it possible? What else is there for a trainer to do but feed a horse, saddle a horse, then go bet?

After a decade of constant filibuster by such media-savvy trainers as Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito, the Triple Crown scene since 2000 has been exposed to a whole different breed of cat.

First there was Neil "No Touchy Feely Questions" Drysdale, playing both Siegfried and Roy to the tempestuous Fusaichi Pegasus.

In 2001, old-school Kentuckian John Ward held his cards close, quietly training Monarchos for the Derby with modest moves while everyone else worked their horses like the second coming of Kaweah Bar.

In 2003 and 2004, veterans Barclay Tagg and John Servis became overnight household names because of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. Then came this year's pair of Shirreffs and Tim Ritchey, both of them (as well as Tagg) hard-wired for common sense from their show-horse backgrounds.

For those paying attention, the message has become brilliantly clear: A good horse - even a Derby or a Preakness winner - can come from anywhere, as long as there is a well-grounded trainer giving close heed to detail and development, and patron who signs on for the ride.

"When it comes to developing horses, I don't think there's been anyone like John in my experience," said Jerry Moss, who bred and owns Giacomo with his wife, Ann. "A lot of guys will look at the breeding, then the price of a horse, and immediately relegate that horse to a particular fate. John steps back, gives them time when they need it, and goes on with them when he should.

"If they need time, we'll say okay, because as you can see," Moss added, nodding toward Giacomo's Belmont Park stall, "it works."

As a freshly turned 60-year-old, John Shirreffs's rise to reluctant stardom is a comforting trend. Strong, silent types don't usually play well in a television world more prone to focus on hair, teeth, and trash talk. To his credit, when the cameras have turned his way, Shirreffs has shown a generous inclination to share the simple joys and serious challenges of training a top-class Thoroughbred racehorse - no matter how many takes it takes:

"Sorry, John," said an NBC segment producer after Shirreffs nailed a taping, "there was a reflection in your glasses. Would you mind if we did it again?"

"Aw, man," Shirreffs replied, feigning disappointment. "That was my best stuff."

Take two was just as good.

Chances are Shirreffs would have been every bit as available for interviews a year ago, or the year before that. Few were interested, though, despite the fact that the California-based trainer always had good numbers and made the most of stakes opportunities.

"That's John," said his wife, Dottie Ingordo, who also acts as racing manager for the Moss stable. "He never calls attention to himself. It's always about the horse."

Like all good trainers, Shirreffs is a demon for detail. His hands-on work with Giacomo has been a clinic in catering to the needs of an emerging young star, pushed into the spotlight and forced to grow up in public. Shirreffs is deeply into organics and health foods - Giacomo's apple and carrot juice cocktail has become famous thanks to ESPN's hilarious "infomercial" by Mayne - along with the more conventional tools of the trade, including a handy roll of duct tape to keep Giacomo's shoes secure during travel. In the end, it is solving the puzzle of the Thoroughbred racehorse that gives Shirreffs the greatest satisfaction.

"I love the fact that John will just stand and stare at a horse for hours, just to figure out what makes that horse happy," said Ann Moss, who spent part of her childhood on a farm near Salt Lake City. "A lot of trainers will just throw things at horses - maybe this will work, or that. For John, each horse is a personal project. A personal friend."

As far as the Belmont is concerned, it was always in the stars for Giacomo, as long as those stars were properly aligned.

"Just like the Derby, winning or losing isn't the end of the world - although I'd much rather win," Shirreffs said. "Hopefully, for Giacomo, there are a lot of races left to run. But like the Derby, we wouldn't be here if we didn't think he would run very well."