05/16/2005 11:00PM

Team Giacomo: Enjoying the moment

Barn foreman Francisco Leal, rubbing Giacomo, is the stable's jack of all trades.

Life around the John Shirreffs stable at Hollywood Park has been surprisingly peaceful since Giacomo pulled an upset in the Kentucky Derby on May 7. The stable employees in Barn 55 have gone about business in an almost normal way. Granted, there are a lot of smiles among the staff, even if a few members are missing.

With Giacomo based at Churchill Downs while he waits to ship for the Preakness Stakes, some key members of Shirreffs's team are in Kentucky attending to the colt, while most people previously involved with the horse's day-to-day care have stayed in California. Through it all, the operation has not missed a beat while Shirreffs divides his time between California and Kentucky.

"Fortunately, I have a big staff and a lot of good people that could fill in," Shirreffs, 59, said over the weekend at his Hollywood barn. "We tried to stay in the same routine because those are the habits you know."

The people surrounding Giacomo are all first-time Derby winners. Some have a lifelong involvement in the sport; others are newcomers, both to racing and the United States.

"You always look for people that like horses," Shirreffs said. "They have things that they do well and like to do. You try to create opportunities for them to excel."

Here is a look at Giacomo's team:

Michelle Jensen, 46
Assistant trainer

Jensen has worked for Shirreffs for four years. Previously she worked for trainer David Hofmans when that stable included top 3-year-olds Touch Gold and Awesome Again. A decade ago, she galloped Cigar when he was based at Allen Paulson's Brookside West Farm in San Diego County.

In the years that Jensen has worked for Shirreffs, she has seen the barn evolve from a 20-horse operation based at one track to a 70-horse stable based at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

Jensen has a wide range of responsibilities, from overseeing a staff of approximately 50 employees to organizing day-to-day care of 50 horses at Hollywood Park to communicating with owners.

"We've grown so much," she said.

Seeing Giacomo win the Kentucky Derby only confirmed what Jensen and many of Shirreffs's employees thought of the colt.

"We all knew he had the talent," she said, "but with 20 horses, could he get through? I think the biggest change is he finally got recognized. We knew he had tons of class, ability, and talent. And John got recognized. He's a brilliant horseman."

Jensen watched the race from a packed stable office. "We were all just screaming, and that made all the horses start screaming," she said. "The excitement filled the whole barn. It was that way for days."

Alejandro Lopez Hernandez, 27

For the last few weeks, Lopez has been a Kentucky Derby-winning groom in absentia. He did not accompany Giacomo to Kentucky in early May so that he could stay home and help care for his infant son. A native of Puebla, Mexico, Lopez has worked for Shirreffs for four years. He grooms four horses, including Stanley Park, who won the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita in March and is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, who also own Giacomo. Lopez said he realized the importance of the Kentucky Derby only after moving from Mexico in the late 1990's. Through a translator, he admitted "getting a little nervous" while watching the race in the stable office.

Francisco "Frank" Leal, 50

Leal has remained with Giacomo at Churchill Downs, where he has assumed the role of groom in place of Lopez. Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Leal came to the United States in 1972, where he began working in a Los Angeles restaurant.

"That lasted about a month," he said.

Leal then found his way to the racetrack, where he began walking hots for the legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham. He also worked for Allen Paulson's main trainer, George Scott, eventually moving to Paulson's farm. He worked primarily with yearlings and 2-year-olds, and for a brief time worked around Cigar. He moved to Golden Eagle Farm, breaking babies for about four years, he said, "but that got to be boring and lonely."

Longing for the racetrack, he joined Shirreffs in 1999. As a foreman for the trainer's main string at Hollywood, he is a jack of all trades and makes sure that everything gets done, whether it is setting feed, feeling legs, mucking stalls, spot-filling for a groom or hotwalker, cleaning tack, or any myriad chores. "Whatever needs doing, I do," said Leal.

Understandably, he is enamored with Giacomo.

"This kind of horse, you like to take care of," he said. "He is a nice horse, and he is getting better and better."

Frankie Herrarte, 22
Exercise rider

Herrarte has been the primary exercise rider for Giacomo since early in the colt's career. Herrarte was born in Guatemala and moved to Los Angeles as an infant. He attended high school in Inglewood, Calif., near Hollywood Park, and began his career in racing as a hotwalker for trainer Bob Baffert in 1998. Shirreffs hired him about two years later.

At 5-foot-8, Herrarte is a bit tall for an exercise rider, but Shirreffs sponsored classes for him at a riding school in Los Angeles because Herrarte had a great interest in learning the craft.

"John took his time with me," said Herrarte. "I made an effort to learn the best I could."

Herrarte exercises six to eight horses a morning at Hollywood. He accompanied Giacomo to Louisville on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby and was aboard the colt for three morning gallops before the race. Herrarte returned to California for several days after the Derby, then went back to Louisville the Friday after the race to resume galloping Giacomo. He worked the colt a half-mile Tuesday at Churchill and will travel to Pimlico to gallop him up to the Preaknes. "He's beautiful," said Herrarte. "Very beautiful."

Salvador Lopez, 45

Lopez was Giacomo's first groom but was promoted to foreman before the colt's first start last fall. Lopez helps the grooms and hotwalkers at Hollywood as well as administering the feed program. He has worked for Shirreffs for 18 months, having previously worked for trainers such as John Gosden, Ian Jory, and John Sullivan. With Jory, Lopez groomed Best Pal when he won the 1990 Hollywood Futurity.

Lopez, who goes by the nickname "Shava," was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and moved to the United States at the age of 18. Because he is so involved with the Hollywood Park stable, Lopez did not travel with Giacomo to Churchill Downs.

When Giacomo first came to the stable last year, he was not an easy horse for Lopez to groom but had loads of promise, Lopez recalled.

"I thought he looked good," Lopez said. "I thought he was a good horse. I had a hard time putting the bridle on him. He was tough."

Sabina Seibel, 33
Workout rider

The workout rider for Giacomo describes herself as "the world's oldest female apprentice jockey."

Seibel, who rode hunter-jumpers as a teenager, had a favorable impression of Giacomo from the start of his career. "All of us in the barn knew he had a lot of class," she said.

Seibel has ridden Giacomo in workouts through most of his career. She was aboard for his late April workouts and had such faith in the colt that she bet $100 to win in the Kentucky Derby, cashing in for $5,130.

Seibel's relationship with Giacomo is about to end. Seibel, who has had a few mounts in races during the Hollywood Park meeting, is planning to leave on June 5 for the northern California fair circuit, where she will ride at the San Joaquin county fair in Stockton.

Marta Queuedo, 30

A native of Guatemala, Queuedo is based at Hollywood. She has worked for Shirreffs for two years and has been a resident of the United States for six years. She spent the afternoon of May 7 with her 5-year-old daughter and did not immediately know that Giacomo had won the Derby.

Smiling, she said through a translator: "Someone called and said he had won."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee