On the morning before the 131st Kentucky Derby, Jerry Moss returned from a coffee run on the Churchill Downs backstretch to find one writer awaiting him at the barn where his Derby long shot, a roan colt named Giacomo, was stabled for the race. Moss had arrived two days earlier, and nary a scribe nor broadcaster had approached his temporary quarters to inquire about his horse or his story. Now dawn's chill gave way to warm sunshine, with the promise of a splendid day and weekend to follow. The writer and the horse owner agreed on the terms of their talk.
"A few minutes," said the writer. "Just in case you win."
"Of course," said Moss, sipping his steaming java. "Just in case."
Just in case Giacomo rumbled past Churchill's venerable twin spires (now flanked by new, cruise-ship-sized, casino-style additions on either side) early on Saturday evening, with jockey Mike Smith skillfully picking his way through the detritus of a killing pace. Just in case Moss's colt, who at 50-1 odds was bidding to become the longest-price Derby winner in 92 years, ran down Afleet Alex and then Closing Argument inside the 16th pole to win the Derby. Just in case the impossible happened, and Moss, on the eve of his 70th birthday, won the Derby with his first starter.
Of course, that is exactly what happened, a baffling turn of events that left the crowd of 156,435 in a buzzing half-silence, stunned that instead of seeing the next Secretariat, they had seen perhaps the next Lil E. Tee. It all seemed so unlikely in the days leading up to a Derby whose field was billed as one of the deepest in recent memory. Giacomo had won only once in seven lifetime starts--in a maiden race for 2-year-olds--and was 0 for 3 in his 2005 campaign, including a fourth-place finish in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby. His Beyer Speed Figures this year were well below the historical minimums for Derby winners. In the Daily Racing Form, 19 handicappers predicted the top four finishers for the Derby, and Giacomo's name appeared exactly once among those 76 picks, projected to finish fourth. He simply didn't seem to belong in the most important horse race in the United States.
This Derby belonged to others. It belonged to trainer Nick Zito, who attracted a daily media throng for briefings to assess the five good horses he had entered in the race--one of which was George Steinbrenner's mesmerizing dark bay Bellamy Road, whose 17 1/2-length victory in the Wood Memorial on April 9 seemed to promise a rare greatness. "We're not just thinking about the Kentucky Derby, we're thinking about the Triple Crown," Irishman Edward Sexton, farm manager for Steinbrenner, said last Friday. Told that American sportsmen generally hide behind one-game-at-a-time rhetoric, Sexton said, "In Ireland we take them three at a time."
Or it belonged to trainer Todd Pletcher, who had three entries and the hottest stable in the country. Or to the connections of Afleet Alex, who had blue-collar credentials that evoked memories of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones and also had connections to a pediatric-cancer charity.
It did not belong to Giacomo--not yet, anyway. But Moss had been taken lightly before, in another world, and had ignored it. From 1962 to '90 he and Herb Alpert ran A&M Records. Acts ranging from the Carpenters and Cat Stevens to Peter Frampton, Supertramp, Styx, Janet Jackson and the Police recorded on their label. Moss had an ear for hits, often when others heard nothing. "The first time I heard the Police's Every Breath You Take, I told people it was a hit," Moss recalled on Friday. "Everybody I asked said, 'You're crazy, that's not a hit.' I said it's not only a hit, it's a monster. I don't mind when people don't believe in me. We think Giacomo is going to run the race of his life."
The colt was like a part of Ann and Jerry Moss's family. In 1992 the couple had bought a filly for $45,000 and named her Set Them Free (after a Sting song). She won $173,275 at the races before retirement, at which time they made her one of their broodmares. In 1998 she was bred to Holy Bull, who'd been ridden by Smith in the 1994 Kentucky Derby and beaten as the 2-1 favorite before going on to win Horse of the Year. Set Them Free dropped a filly whom the Mosses named Styler, for Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting. Now six years old, Styler is still in training, but Moss liked what he saw in the horse. "She is a beautiful filly," he says, "and we wanted to breed Set Them Free back to Holy Bull."
That pairing was repeated in 2002, producing Giacomo, named for Sting and Styler's nine-year-old son, Giacomo Sumner. Giacomo showed promise as a 2-year-old, finishing second to the gifted Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity last Dec. 18. As a 3-year-old, however, Giacomo was game but winless, finishing third, second and fourth in three starts. "I was disappointed after [the Santa Anita Derby]," said John Shirreffs, Giacomo's trainer. "But he kept getting better in training. And after that race, Mike Smith came back and said, 'John, believe me, he can do it.'"
He did, and he had help at Churchill Downs, both on his back and far in front of him on the racetrack. As expected, rabbit Spanish Chestnut--entered by the owners of 7-1 third betting choice Bandini to soften up Bellamy Road or any other horse that set the early pace--led the field through searing fractions of 22.28 seconds for a quarter mile, 45.38 for a half and 1:09.59 for three quarters, equaling the second-fastest six-furlong split in Derby history. Astonishingly, half a dozen horses went after Spanish Chestnut, including Bellamy Road, whom jockey Javier Castellano was inexplicably urging into that suicidal pace.
Smith, starting out of the 10th post, boldly jumped the heels of Greeley's Galaxy to save ground on the first turn and then settled into the second flight of horses behind the speed. With a half mile left in the race, he was 18th. "I hoped it would be fast," said Shirreffs, "and it was."
Still in only 11th place as he angled wide on the turn for home, Smith dropped down to the middle of the track when the field straightened out, then moved outside again to get a clear lane to the wire through staggering horses--including Bellamy Road, who finished seventh, the best of Zito's five. It was a sensational stretch of riding that probably made the difference between first and third. Closing Argument, a 72-1 shot, took second, half a length ahead of Afleet Alex. "Mike Smith did a hell of a job," said three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose Sort It Out finished 17th.
Smith, 39, wore a Holy Bull T-shirt under his pink-and-green silks, a reminder of his bitter loss in 1994 and of the long climb to the Derby winner's circle. In '98, when he was among the hottest riders in the country, he broke his back in a spill at Saratoga; because trainers quickly forget injured riders, he says he came back "five months too soon" and struggled to get back to the top. Slowly, that changed, but a Derby win remained agonizingly elusive. He was second on Proud Citizen behind loose-on-the-lead War Emblem in 2002 and was aboard Lion Heart when he was outrun by Smarty Jones last May. "You start to get older, and you wonder if you're ever going to get one," Smith said after the shocking win.
Shirreffs, 59, set his own bar lower. He has trained horses since 1978, earning the respect of his peers--"A quiet, hardworking guy you can't say anything bad about," says Baffert--but little acclaim. "I never expected to be here," he said of reaching the winner's circle. "Just getting to Kentucky was such a thrill."
Giacomo's Derby will be pilloried by purists and stat crunchers as a race that was decimated by a fast pace that cooked immature horses incapable of running so far, so fast; Giacomo was simply there to pick up the pieces. The final quarter was run in 26.87 seconds, the slowest on a fast Derby track since 1971 (although Giacomo, coming from behind, was surely running a little faster than that). He will scare few horses away from the May 21 Preakness, and there will be little talk of a Triple Crown.
None of that will be inscribed on the Kentucky Derby trophy. Nor will the fact that a music man had another hit, a trainer fulfilled his dream, a jockey found his redemption. "A great, amazing adventure for all of us," said Moss. Let others grade Giacomo's Derby win; his family will simply embrace it.