05/09/2005 12:00AM

Smith never lost faith in Giacomo


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Mike Smith climbed aboard Giacomo for the first time last year, he had a flashback. In the early 1990's, Smith was the regular rider for Giacomo's father, Holy Bull, a steel-gray running machine.

After putting Giacomo through a workout one morning at Hollywood Park, Smith jumped off him and was excited to tell trainer John Shirreffs what he thought.

"I said, 'John, this colt has a lot of talent, serious talent,' " Smith said. " 'This might be the one that's going to redeem his daddy's name.' I said, 'I'm telling you, this is going to be my Derby horse.' "

Nearly a year later, Smith's words proved prophetic as he guided Giacomo to the second-biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history with his half-length victory over Closing Argument Saturday at Churchill Downs.

The victory came 11 years after Smith finished 12th of 14 in the Derby aboard 2-1 favorite Holy Bull. Smith's fondness for Holy Bull is still evident by his undershirt, which has an emblem of Holy Bull stitched over the left breast.

"I was so disappointed, because I felt that he was the best horse that day and almost every time he ran, if not every time he ran," Smith said of Holy Bull. "For that to happen was devastating; I thought that was going to be my first Derby."

Though Giacomo had only a maiden win to his credit, Smith always kept the faith. Giacomo finished second to champion Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity, and Smith felt he was progressing with every race this year, including a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, regarded by many as a poor Derby prep.

"He's got so much ability, and John's done a tremendous job of just taking baby steps with him and not rushing to reach our goal," Smith said. "This was our goal."

A Derby victory was always the goal for Smith, who had been 0 for 11 in this race. He rode his first Derby in 1984, and from 1993-96, he rode the favorite or second choice. In 2002, he finished second aboard Proud Citizen, and last year was second on Lion Heart.

"I had some really good chances to win it," Smith said. "It's such a hard race to win, then to go through getting hurt, coming back, and not knowing if you'll ever do it and to finally do it - like I said, I can't describe it."

This victory may help Smith rejuvenate a Hall of Fame career that had stalled in recent years.

Smith, who turns 40 in August, won two Eclipse Awards and was the nation's leading rider in money won in 1993. In 1994, he won 68 stakes, 20 of them Grade 1's - both records before Jerry Bailey broke them.

Two days after winning the 1998 Travers aboard Coronado's Quest, Smith suffered a broken back in a spill at Saratoga. Smith was expected to miss nine months to a year. He came back in five months, a move that he now regrets.

"It ruined my career for a while," Smith said. "I was fortunate enough to work my way back. I think it was harder to work my way back than getting there the first time."

Smith decided to move his tack to Southern California in May 2001. In 2002, he picked up the mount on Azeri, and guided her to Horse of the Year honors that season and championship honors in 2003.

With California racing suffering from short fields and Hollywood Park facing an uncertain future, Smith decided to move his tack to Kentucky this spring. He rode some at Keeneland and will ride at Churchill until that meet ends in early July. Smith said he is leaning toward returning to Del Mar, but didn't totally discount riding at Saratoga.

In the Derby, Giacomo rallied from 18th, and Smith felt he gave the horse a strong ride. Approaching the first turn, Smith was being carried wide by Greeley's Galaxy. Smith decided to snatch Giacomo and move him inside of that horse around the turn.

"I was able to save about two or three lengths when I did that instead of losing two or three," Smith said. "I would have lost the race if I don't do that."

Gary Stevens, who has also moved his tack from California to Kentucky, is one of Smith's best friends. Stevens, who rode Noble Causeway in the Derby, was alongside Smith and Giacomo in upper stretch when their eyes met.

"It was like that look, 'I'm coming over, I need to get there,' and he made a quick move to the outside," Stevens said. "I had the best seat in the house watching him go through, and I thought, well, he's going to be second. I kept my eyes on him and I'm still riding. When he crossed the finish line, I still had about 100 yards to go, I started crying. He's wanted a Derby for a long, long time."