05/08/2005 11:00PM

Perfect ending to rough week


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Shirreffs is a quiet guy, almost as quiet as his horse. Frankie Herrarte, their man in the saddle, and Francisco Leal, the broad-shouldered groom, take their low-key cues from the boss. You wouldn't think of them as particular rabble rousers. And yet there they were, less than 24 hours after hitting town, drawing attention to themselves like sailors on shore leave in Shanghai.

First, there was the hiccup at the Churchill Downs starting gate last Thursday morning when Shirreffs, his pony, Herrarte, and Giacomo approached from the wrong direction. This, of course, is not unusual for Los Angelenos when they travel abroad. Without our freeways, we are sad, helpless souls.

"He doesn't really need to stand in the gate," Shirreffs said later, still sheepish about the minor transgression. "It was more for the gate crew to get to know him. But here, the gate is set up on the outside, not the inside like we're used to. Instead of galloping past it and turning around, you're supposed to come up from the back. We didn't know."

Tell it to the hardboots. So there was shouting and arm-waving and grumbling about "yahoo California cowboys" before order was restored. Giacomo had to cool his heels before taking his turn in the gate.

"I guess it didn't matter that he had his Derby saddlecloth," Herrarte said. Nope, not a bit.

Things were going a lot smoother Thursday afternoon as Giacomo & Co. waltzed over from Barn 45 for a peek at the Churchill Downs paddock. With Leal at the shank, Giacomo was circling sweetly in the corner, taking in the sights and smells. Shirreffs and Herrarte lolled nearby, admiring their Derby horse. There was sunshine, puffy clouds, a light breeze . . . ahh, Kentucky in springtime, we're 50-1 and not a care in the world.

"Oh no," Shirreffs suddenly snapped. "He did it."

In the blink of an eye, a perfectly mellow schooling session had gone wrong. Somehow, Giacomo had twisted loose the shoe on his left front foot, the same foot from which a shoe flew loose in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita earlier in the year. Shirreffs scurried around to find the paddock farrier so that the plate could be pulled, preventing possible damage. He sent Herrarte hustling back to the barn for a role of Vetwrap, with instructions to meet them at the backstretch gap.

"We needed to protect that bare foot before walking on those roads," Shirreffs said. "The last thing you want to do is pick up a little piece of gravel."

The rogue shoe was nailed back in place and stayed that way - with the help of a little duct tape for the Derby walkover - right through late Saturday afternoon, when Giacomo blared his final "Hey, look at me!" to the racing world by winning the 131st running of America's most famous race. The silent horse and his shy trainer finally were fully exposed, much to the delight of the longshot players and to the everlasting frustration of figure handicappers who gave Giacomo no chance.

In the wake of a Derby buildup obsessed with Nick, Todd, and Alex, Giacomo's victory could make it tempting to dismiss the entire 3-year-old class as an unsatisfying lot, bouncing like beachballs and suffering from some weird form of survivor's guilt as the foal crop most affected by Kentucky's 2001 plague of mare reproductive loss syndrome.

That would be too bad, because there is probably more to these young guns than meets the eye. Free from the unnatural acts and hothouse scrutiny imposed by the Derby, they now might be allowed to develop in a healthier, more natural atmosphere. One thing is certain: None of the 20 will ever be asked to run in a race like the Derby again.

As twilight descended around the Churchill barns last Saturday evening, Shirreffs was in the tackroom mixing Giacomo's traditional post-race smoothie of fresh carrots and apples (picture the freshly minted Derby winner with a bright orange muzzle). When the trainer was informed that the 4-year-old filly Hollywood Story had won the Hawthorne Handicap for the stable back home at Hollywood Park, he could manage only a sigh and a shake of the head, as if weary from the absorption of so much good fortune.

Shirreffs, 59, is a son of an Air Force pilot who came to horses through his father, who was also an accomplished rider. As a 12-year-old kid he found himself steeped in the basics of horsemanship at a stable on Long Island's north shore run by Eddie and Huey Gromley, a couple of crusty Irishmen.

A little while later there was Vietnam, where Shirreffs surfed the beachbreak of the South China Sea, when not otherwise occupied with the grim business of war. Then came a stint at Loma Rica Ranch, in north central California, before embarking on a career at the track as assistant to such West Coast stalwarts as Gene Cleveland, Bill Spawr, and Brian Mayberry, who trained Giacomo's dam. Shirreffs has been licensed since 1978.

Asked if there was anyone in his personal past who deserved to share the Derby's moment in the sun, Shirreffs did not hesitate.

"I worked for a man named Henry Freitas at Loma Rica," Shirreffs said. "He's passed away now, but he was a very special person, and a very good teacher."

The Loma Rica operation revolved around yearlings, and the young Shirreffs was anxious to impress his boss by keeping things on a tight schedule.

"Henry wouldn't let me do that," Shirreffs said. "He taught me to never cut time short with one horse just to get to the next one. I couldn't learn anything more important than that. Horses take time, and observation. Then, with experience, you've got a chance to make the right decisions."

And maybe history as well.