Published in the May 14 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine
Mike Smith stood by himself in front of the detention barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch. The May 7 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) was still a week and a half away, and the mass influx of media was not due for several days. Smith, who had been riding regularly at Keeneland, gazed out at the track, watching the morning activities. It was on this track on the first Saturday in May that Smith had experienced some of his greatest disappointments. Three times he had finished second in the Run for the Roses--on the favorite, Prairie Bayou, in 1993; on the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Proud Citizen in 2002; and aboard the second choice, Lion Heart, in 2004. He also had finished third aboard Lukas' Cat Thief in 1999. But it was in the slop on a gray, bone-chilling afternoon in 1994 that he had suffered the biggest disappointment of all. That was the year he sat helplessly on the back of the great Holy Bull, who floundered over the wet track to finish 12th of 14 as the 2-1 favorite. Smith had formed a bond with Holy Bull and was crushed as he dismounted, his lifeless face caked in mud. It was now 11 years later, and all the Derby disappointments and a near-career-ending spill, in which he broke his back, were behind him. All that was on Smith's mind now was another gray colt, a son of Holy Bull named Giacomo, whom he would ride in this year's Derby. After the colt broke his maiden by 10 lengths last October at Santa Anita, Smith came back all excited, having once again felt the speed and power of Holy Bull through his son. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "He reminds me so much of Holy Bull." Smith told anyone who would listen that this was the colt that was going to "redeem his father's name in the Kentucky Derby." Despite five subsequent defeats, Smith persevered and stayed with the colt, turning down offers to ride other horses in the major Southern California Derby preps. It mattered little that Giacomo would be one of the longest prices in the Derby. Smith had bonded with the colt the way he had bonded with his sire, having been on his back since May of last year, two months before his first start. He was convinced the horse was sitting on a big race. But Smith had seen so many dreams evaporate in the final quarter-mile of the Derby, he had to be wondering if his time was running out. "As you start getting older, you do have to wonder if one is ever going to come," said Smith, who turns 40 Aug. 10. "But this colt is a lot better than people think. He's been working great, and I really believe he's going to run a big race. The California horses aren't getting much play, but that's all right. I'm tellin' you, though, the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) wasn't a bad race, and all those horses ran good and came home fast. He's consistent, he's athletic, and he acts like he'll handle the mile and a quarter. The main thing to me is how he gets over this track. If they don't like this son of a gun, I don't care how good they are." Fast forward to the day before the Derby. Trainer John Shirreffs stood by himself on the track and watched Giacomo warming up before his gallop. The hordes of media were now at Churchill in full force and scattered around the backstretch, most of them milling about outside Barn 36, also known this year as Fort Zito. Its commander, trainer Nick Zito, had five Derby starters for five different owners. The only other Derby trainer to saddle five starters was D. Wayne Lukas in 1996, when three ownership interests were represented. Most of the other members of the media were either at Afleet Alex' barn, where this year's fairy tale saga was unfolding, or next door at the barn of Todd Pletcher, who had three Derby horses, including Bandini, the runaway Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner. It didn't bother Shirreffs that there were no reporters or cameramen around him as he prepared his first Kentucky Derby starter, but he was surprised that the California horses were being given little respect. The experts regarded them as nothing more than a ragamuffin army going to battle against one of the most powerful forces ever assembled on the first Saturday in May. And in this ragamuffin army, Giacomo was considered by most a mere private. Buzzards Bay, the Santa Anita Derby winner, was 20-1 on the morning line. Third-place finisher Wilko, winner of last year's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), also was 20-1. Don't Get Mad, the sixth-place finisher who had tried his best to promote the Santa Anita Derby form by romping by seven lengths in the April 30 Derby Trial, was 30-1. And finally, there was Giacomo, who had finished fourth, beaten two lengths, at 50-1. "How can the Santa Anita Derby winner be 20-1?" Shirreffs asked. "How often do people think a race is bad, then a horse wins coming out of that race, and suddenly, they're all good horses? And how often do California horses come out here and kick a little butt? "People were pretty excited about him when he ran second to Declan's Moon (in the grade I Hollywood Futurity), then they sort of got off of him because he didn't seem like he progressed much after that. But he has only been a couple of lengths off from where he needs to be, and he's never had a great trip. He's gone wide here; he's gone wide there. He lost a shoe in the Sham Stakes. And the Santa Anita Derby was run like a turf race. They went very slow early and sprinted to the wire. This horse is really doing well, and he's so good mentally. He runs his heart out, goes to sleep that night, and the next day it's, 'OK, what do you want to do today?"Later that morning, Jerry Moss, who bred and owns Giacomo with his wife, Ann, stood by himself outside the colt's barn, hundreds of yards--and to some, light years--away from the leading Derby contenders' barns. Moss also acknowledged the lack of respect the Santa Anita Derby horses were getting. Although this also was his first starter in the Derby, Moss has been around plenty of big races, winning the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) with Sardula and the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) with Ruhlmann. Moss discussed Giacomo's name and was amused how often it was mispronounced by race callers (it is pronounced JOCK-ah-mo). He named the colt after rock star Sting's son, who, according to Moss, had been named after the great Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini, who composed such famous operas as La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. The colt was getting no respect, and his jockey, trainer, and owner headed into Derby day looking to prove the critics wrong. When the race was over, Smith, Shirreffs, and Moss no longer were standing by themselves. Giacomo had a blanket of roses draped over his shoulders, and Smith was hugging and being hugged by hundreds of people who were genuinely happy for one of the sport's good guys. The only thing brighter than the smile on Smith's face was the tote board lights that revealed the mind-boggling mutuel payoffs: $102.60 to win (the second-highest price in Derby history); $9,814.60 exacta price; and two North American records, the $133,134.80 trifecta price and $1 superfecta payoff of $864,253. As Shirreffs had said, they certainly came out and kicked some butt. This year's Derby picture was unlike any other in memory. Racing's titans, Nick Zito, Todd Pletcher, D. Wayne Lukas, and Bobby Frankel, had 11 of the 20 Derby hopefuls, with Lukas having to withdraw one of his horses, Consolidator, several days before the race due to a fractured sesamoid. One sight that stood out was Fort Zito, so named for the fortress-like fence assembled outside the trainer's barn with its ominous-looking "Keep Out" signs. Each morning, General Zito would stand under his favorite tree by the rail observing his troops--Bellamy Road, Sun King, High Fly, Noble Causeway, and Andromeda's Hero--like Napoleon sitting atop his horse surveying the battlefield at Austerlitz. "Getting to the Derby is a blessing," Zito said one morning. "And whatever you get after that is a real blessing. I know one thing, if I get them all in the gate, and have five horses for five different owners, win, lose, or draw, we've made history--we're a part of history." Zito's high-profile horse was Bellamy Road, a 15 3/4-length allowance winner at Gulfstream and 17 1/2-length winner of the Wood Memorial (gr. I), who is owned by New York Yankees majority owner George Steinbrenner. Then there was Afleet Alex, the eight-length winner of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), whose Cinderella story rivaled that of last year's winner Smarty Jones. It had everything to touch the heart and show the triumph of the human spirit. The breeder, John Martin Silvertand, had his young daughter, Lauren, feed the newly born Afleet Alex through a Coors Lite bottle, because his dam wasn't able to produce milk. Silvertand himself had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only several months to live. But he decided to discontinue chemotherapy and put his fate "in God's hands." Motivated by the heroics of Afleet Alex, Silvertand is still alive and following the colt's career more than two years later. Also included in the Afleet Alex story is "Alex's Lemonade Stand," started by 4-year-old Alexandra "Alex" Scott, who had been diagnosed with a form of juvenile cancer. Prior to her death last August, she opened a lemonade stand to raise money for her hospital and for cancer research. It reached people all over the world, eventually raising close to $1.7 million. Afleet Alex' Cash is King Stable partners, touched by the story, have donated a portion of the colt's earnings to Alex's Lemonade Stand. Another human interest story surrounded 83-year-old Warren Stute, trainer of Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner Greeley's Galaxy. Stute has suffered three strokes, the third of which forced him to stop exercising his own horses. Stute had run one previous horse in the Derby 38 years ago. A crowd of 156,435--second largest in Derby history--turned out at the newly renovated Churchill Downs on a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the mid- 70s. The stage was set for Derby 131, the first with a $2 million purse, which mushroomed to $2,399,600 with the $200,000 supplement fee of Greeley's Galaxy. Bellamy Road, as expected, was the 5-2 favorite, with Afleet Alex at 9-2, and Bandini 6-1. The four Santa Anita Derby horses-- Buzzards Bay, Wilko, Giacomo, and Don't Get Mad--were 46-1, 21-1, 50-1, and 29-1, respectively. The longest shot on the board was Closing Argument at 71-1. At the start, Spanish Chestnut shot to the lead, followed by Going Wild, breaking from post 19. Greeley's Galaxy, a stalker, broke a step slowly from post 9 and quickly found himself last in the field of 20, while being steered to the inside. Giacomo broke cleanly but had only two horses beat going by the stands the first time. After racing between Greeley's Galaxy and Don't Get Mad, Smith was able to get him out in the clear but was fanned six wide going into the clubhouse turn. Spanish Chestnut cut out a scorching pace, with a quarter in :22.28 and a half in :45.38, the fourth-fastest opening half-mile in Derby history. Going Wild was tracking him in second, followed closely by Flower Alley, High Fly, and Bellamy Road, all of whom had been put in the frying pan by Spanish Chestnut. Down the backstretch, Giacomo, still near the rear of the pack, was five to six paths off the rail and in danger of being forced wide into the far turn. "He got carried out going into the first turn, and I had to work my way back down in there," Smith said. "I took a little bumping and I knew I was going to have to save ground, being so far back." Around the turn, Zito's pair of Bellamy Road and High Fly disposed of Spanish Chestnut in tandem, but the damage had been done after a brutal three-quarters in 1:09.59, the second-fastest six-furlong fraction in Derby history. "When I saw the second wave of closers rallying behind them, I couldn't believe none of my other horses were among them," Zito said. Buzzards Bay, who had broken from post 20, made the first sustained move, with Closing Argument and Afleet Alex looking for racing room. One of Zito's closers, Noble Causeway, had been all but wiped out by High Limit, who was bumped soundly by Flower Alley. High Limit would fade to last, returning with cuts and bruises. Bellamy Road stuck his nose in front of High Fly at the head of the stretch, but Buzzards Bay was now lapped on them. Closing Argument had clear sailing and moved in for the kill, as Afleet Alex eased out and found an opening between Bellamy Road and Closing Argument. Greeley's Galaxy was making a big, wide move from the back, followed by Don't Get Mad, who was taking the overland route, some 10 wide, outside of Greeley's Galaxy. Giacomo, meanwhile, was surrounded by horses as they turned for home. Although he was six wide, there was a cavalry charge of horses outside of him, as the entire field appeared to fan out. Smith ducked inside looking for a hole, while throwing a series of crosses on his colt. Wilko was making his move inside Giacomo, but when a tiring Flower Alley came out in their path, Wilko was forced to steady slightly, shoving Giacomo out. Smith looked up and, lo and behold, there was clear sailing ahead of him. He went to a series of left-handed whips, and Giacomo kept grinding. Closing Argument had taken a slight lead from Afleet Alex to his inside and looked to have the race won, but Giacomo closed relentlessly to wear him down in the final strides. How ironic was it that the horse Giacomo defeated was the winner of the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III)? His final margin was a half-length, the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.75. Closing Argument finished a half-length ahead of Afleet Alex. Don't Get Mad rallied on the far outside to finish fourth, followed by Buzzards Bay, Wilko, and Bellamy Road. The much maligned Santa Anita Derby had produced four of the first six finishers. "He just kept grinding and grinding and grinding, and wouldn't stop until he bullied his way out and ran them down," Smith said. "That's when the Holy Bull in him came out. What a lot of people don't know is that John trained this horse for this race starting six or seven months ago. He wanted every race to be just a little bit better than the one before. This was so overwhelming; I'm still numb. When I stood up after the wire, all the strength left my body. My legs buckled and I was hanging on for dear life, really." Smith then reached in his pocket and pulled out a damp, crumpled $200 win ticket on Giacomo that was given to him in the paddock by Moss. After the race, Moss hugged Shirreffs. "That was an amazing thing you did," he told him. "Just an amazing thing." Following the winner's circle photo, Shirreffs appeared lost as he started leading the horse back down the turf course until he was finally directed to the opening to the dirt track. He looked as if he were heading back to the test barn with the horse, unaware that the presentation was just about to begin. "He's the guy," Shirreffs said of the horse after being told he'd be needed at the presentation. "I just want to make sure he gets back OK." The trainer reluctantly let go of the lead shank, as if deciding whether to follow the horse or the trophy. "I've never run in this race before," he said. "I don't know the routine." Finally, someone from NBC who knew Shirreffs came running over to get him to the podium. "You're killin' me, John," he said. "You're killin' me." After the ceremonies, it was all about Smith, who set the all-time Derby hug record. A noticeably choked up Gary Stevens, who rode Noble Causeway, wrapped his arms around Smith as if greeting a long-lost brother. "That's just the way I feel," Stevens said. "I'm as excited right now as I would be had it been me that won. I'm so choked up. He's wanted this for so long. And I would say the Mosses are the most loyal owners I've ever ridden for. And John is just a blue-collar kind of guy, but one of the best horsemen around and very humble." If there was one person Smith couldn't wait to call it was his father, George, who gallops horses at Philadelphia Park in the mornings, and parks cars in the afternoons. Among the trainers he has worked for are John Servis and the late Bob Camac, two of the leading figures in the Smarty Jones story. "I guarantee you my dad was in the bathroom getting sick the whole race," Smith said. "He's so nervous." George watched the Derby by himself at his home in Croyden, Pa., about 15 minutes from Philadelphia Park. "It was unbelievable," he said later that night. "I started shaking and then began jumping up and down. I'm sure they heard me all the way down the street. Mike kept telling me three or four months ago how much he liked this colt. I really couldn't say much when we spoke after the race; I was so emotional. I just told him that I loved him. He's such a good kid, and I'm so proud of him. It's just hitting me now. I'm sure I won't be able to go to sleep tonight." Back at the barn, as darkness began to fall, Giacomo was busy butting his hay rack around and enjoying his smoothie of carrot and apple juice. Jerry and Ann Moss couldn't take their eyes off the colt. "I'm going to have to watch the replay 10 or 12 times before it really sinks in," Jerry said. He then called Robbie Harris, who had broken Giacomo at his farm in Ocala, Fla., to congratulate him. Harris said Giacomo, who is out of the Stop the Music mare Set Them Free, was just a "gangly teenager," and didn't do anything to make him stand out. "He was a very smart colt and always did everything right, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you I thought he was going to win the Kentucky Derby," he said. "It was John who loved him from day one. He picked him out of the whole group of homebreds and purchases. He's just done a super job with him. This couldn't happen to better people." So, Holy Bull has been redeemed. Mike Smith finally is glowing in the spotlight that has eluded him for so long. Shirreffs and the Mosses are no longer strangers to the Run for the Roses. And the California horses, especially the most maligned one of all, finally are getting respect. As Moss said, "It's amazing how much more respect you get when you win the Kentucky Derby."