05/08/2005 11:00PM

Slow Derby clocking tarnishes Giacomo's win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Because they won the biggest race in America, Jerry Moss and his wife, Ann, the owners and breeders of Saturday's winner Giacomo; trainer John Shirreffs; and jockey Mike Smith, who finally won his first Derby in his 12th attempt, deserve congratulations. So do the bettors, few as they may be, who were prescient enough to have Giacomo at the boxcar mutuel of $102.60; or the Giacomo, Closing Argument exacta worth $9,814.80; or the Giacomo, Closing Argument, Afleet Alex trifecta that paid a whopping $133,134.80; or the Giacomo, Closing Argument, Afleet Alex, Don't Get Mad superfecta that returned a mind-boggling $1,728,507, which is nearly $100,000 more than Giacomo's winner's share of the purse.

Giacomo's connections had a day they surely will never forget. The last thing they need is anyone spoiling their party, let alone making them feel like they have to apologize for anything. But when the celebration of a new Derby winner ends, and an objective analysis of the first leg of the 2005 Triple Crown begins, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Kentucky Derby 131 should be taken only with a grain of salt.

The big problem with this Derby - and it is a huge one - is that it was run in incredibly slow time without extenuating circumstances. The track was so lighting fast that earlier in the card good classified allowance horses sizzled a half-mile in 43.78 seconds en route to completing six furlongs in 108.03, the 16-1 shot Battle Won smoked seven furlongs in 1:20.56 in winning the Churchill Downs Handicap to equal the track record, and the promising 2-year-old Half Ours zipped five furlongs in 57.07. The Derby took forever, or 2:02.75 to be precise, to complete. That equated to a Beyer Speed Figure of merely 100, which isn't good enough to win many high-priced claiming races.

The reason for the poor final time and pedestrian Beyer Figure is this Derby fell completely apart in the late stages. The early pace was suitably fast, with an opening quarter mile in 22.28 seconds, and a second quarter in 23.10. However, the fourth quarter went in 26.29, and the fifth and last quarter-mile went in an even slower 26.87, which means that the last half-mile in the Derby went in an astoundingly slow 53.16. And you thought the superfecta payoff was amazing.

Giacomo, who was eligible to a first-level allowance race going into Saturday, deserves at least a little credit for being the horse that capitalized best on the way this Derby went to pieces. At the same time, Giacomo, not to mention the rest of the Derby field, could live to race 100 more times, and he will never encounter a race in which he will again have all day to get up in time like he did in this one. And he still only just barely capitalized.

A case could be made that Closing Argument ran the best race in the Derby on Saturday. A quarter of a mile into the race, Closing Argument was fifth, only two lengths off the quick early pace. In the meantime, Giacomo was 18th, 18th, and 18th in his first three calls, Afleet Alex was 11th, 11th, and ninth in his first three calls, Don't Get Mad was 19th, 19th, and 19th in his first three calls, fifth-place finisher Buzzards Bay was 10th, 10th, and seventh in his first three calls, and sixth-place finisher Wilko was 13th, 14th, and 16th in his first three calls.

In other words, Closing Argument was the only Derby colt who was part of the early pace to be close at the finish, and he lost to Giacomo by only a half-length. It would be much easier to feel better about this if Closing Argument went into the Derby with stronger credentials. But at 71.60-1, he was the longest shot of all 20 starters, and that was not an oversight. With a modest albeit consistent record going in, Closing Argument was 71-1 for good reason.

At least Giacomo's victory gives a boost to the so-called "Derby rules," the parameters used to identify likely Derby winners. Giacomo raced at 2, as have all the Derby winners since Apollo in 1882. He had three prep races this year, and every Derby winner since Jet Pilot in 1947 but one - Sunny's Halo in 1983 - had at least three Derby preps. He had a race within four weeks of the Derby, as have all the Derby winners since Needles in 1956. But he was the first Derby winner since Sea Hero in 1993 not to have earned a triple-digit Beyer Figure en route to Louisville.

Giacomo also helped to bury further some Derby misconceptions. For the third year in a row, a trainer who was starting his first horse in the Derby won the race, suggesting again that prior Derby experience is vastly overrated. More importantly, Giacomo completed all his pre-Derby training at Hollywood Park and did not arrive in Kentucky until last Wednesday, proving that it is unnecessary to stable and train over the Churchill Downs strip before the Derby. That shouldn't surprise anyone by now. As predicted, because you can now set your clock by it, the Churchill main track got faster than usual on Friday, Oaks Day, and was even faster on Derby Day. In other words, the Churchill strip in no way resembled the track that the horses who did go early to Churchill trained over.