05/12/2005 11:00PM

Rudolph had Giacomo pegged


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As Preakness week begins, the nation's horseplayers will turn once again to their favorite gurus in desperate hope that the 131st Kentucky Derby was a fluke and order will be restored.

Giacomo's victory at odds of 50-1, along with the failure of highly touted favorites, rumbled through the mainstream handicapping community like an ill-timed discharge in church.

"There were postings on chat rooms by people who seemed really angry at the outcome," said Jeff Siegel, HRTV analyst and horse owner. "I had Giacomo 10th in my handicap. But I'm not upset that I didn't pick this winner, or that it flew in the face of logic, because the Derby is an illogical race."

Most modern handicapping theories hold horses accountable for the analytical numbers they produce in prior appearances. Whether these numbers come in the form of figures, sheets, or semaphore, they have proven to be valuable gambling tools in the hands of true believers, especially when employed in the daily trenches of multi-track simulcast arenas.

There are, however, some horseplayers who cling to the old ways. They view handicapping as an organic endeavor, with hidden nuance and subtle hints tucked away deep in past performances. They look at horses going to the post. They factor trainer patterns, and sometimes care deeply about pedigree. They are musicians, surfers, artists, hippies, and Eugene McCarthy Democrats, living in a holistic, right-brained world of whole grains, herbal medicine, and rock festivals featuring Phish.

Their new Big Kahuna is Ken Rudolph, better known as the well-dressed dude holding down the (camera) left side of the desk during prime-time broadcasts of the horse racing network TVG.

A handful of public handicappers dared to put Giacomo on top of their Kentucky Derby picks, and they have taken the appropriate bows. But it was Rudolph who tabbed Giacomo on the air, and months ago, for any TVG viewer who was paying attention.

Rudolph, it should be noted, remained unflinching in his loyalty to Giacomo (a pre-Derby nonwinner-other-than) in the face of good-natured mocking from his co-hosts. From the inception of TVG, Rudolph's role has been that of enthusiastic outsider, more comfortable with rock-'n'-roll allusions than handicapping cant. He brought to the job a local TV sports background from his native Sacramento, where he also did lead guitar and vocals for a group called Mother's Gravy.

"I'm not known for my handicapping prowess," Rudolph said, "and I accept that, because I am relatively inexperienced when it comes to this. But I have learned that if everyone else - trainers, owners, jockeys - are picking their Derby horses months in advance, it might be best for a handicapper to try and do the same."

Rudolph's epiphany occurred last October when Giacomo won his maiden by 10 1/2 lengths at 1 1/16 miles, while TVG was covering the Santa Anita races during the Oak Tree meet.

"I talked to Mike Smith right after that race," Rudolph said. "Mike just loved the horse, and though I've only known him about two years, I've never known him to be that way about horses. After that, I just started following him, knowing also that John Shirreffs is never in a hurry to do anything with any horse."

Fast-forward to Derby Day, and Rudolph is on the TVG set at Hollywood Park getting ready to anchor the Fox Sports portion of the afternoon broadcast.

"The producer told me that first we'd talk about the favorites, then we'll talk about your personal longshot pick," Rudolph said. "I don't know if I was just so geeked up about my horse, or it was because of the audio traffic, but I missed what he said about opening with the favorites. So I opened the show talking about Giacomo."

There followed a virtual filibuster from Rudolph on why Giacomo should win, hitting all the now-familiar notes.

"Speed horses seemed to be winning all the Derby preps, and this guy was always coming on, working away," Rudolph said. "If all that speed showed up in the Derby, I knew he'd have the pace he needed. I also thought he was a long way from getting to the bottom of the tank, and that would be important in a race like the Derby, with those horses going a mile and a quarter for the first time.

"Then there was a conversation I had with John Shirreffs on opening weekend at Hollywood. You know John. He doesn't say a lot. But he did say his horse had been working like a champion.

"I didn't realize at the time how much I went on about this horse - ad nauseam," Rudolph added. "Of course, I didn't have to say anything after the race."

All he had to do was cash. Rudolph said he had $100 riding on Giacomo in one form or another.

"Anybody can have an opinion," Rudolph said. "If you don't put your money up, there's no credibility. But why didn't I bet five hundred, a thousand? I just don't have the courage to do that with any horse, ever. In this case, though, it was the most I ever bet."

That should be good enough.