LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The fickle hand of horse racing reached into the Kentucky Derby yesterday at Churchill Downs and anointed a 50-1 long shot, Giacomo, as winner of the 131st renewal of this country's grandest race.
Having won only one of seven races in California, Giacomo entered the Derby a forgotten horse. Hardly anyone even knew how to pronounce his name. It's JOCK-a-moe. But it's horse racing, as they say, and anything can happen.
It did. Giacomo won by a half-length, and Closing Argument at 71-1, the longest shot among 20 horses, finished second. Giacomo's win payoff of $102.60 was the second largest in Derby history. In 1913, Donerail returned $184.90.
But the exacta, trifecta and superfecta payoffs shattered records. Afleet Alex, at 9-2, was the only one of the top four who wasn't a long shot; he finished third. Don't Get Mad, at 29-1, charged for fourth. The payoffs?
Exacta $9,814.80. (Previous record $1,300.80).
Trifecta $133,134.80. (Previous record $18,373.20). Superfecta $1,728,507. (Previous record $183,529.)
The favorites faltered. George Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road, the 5-2 favorite and, according to some, the next great horse, finished seventh. That was the highest finish of any of trainer Nick Zito's five entrants. The others finished eighth (Andromeda's Hero), 10th (High Fly), 14th (Noble Causeway) and 15th (Sun King).
"There isn't anything you can say," Zito said, "except that's racing."
Giacomo is owned and was bred by Ann and Jerry Moss. Jerry Moss is the "M" in A&M Records. He and Herb Alpert founded what became the world's largest independent record company. Rock musician Sting is an A&M artist. The Mosses named Giacomo after Sting's 9-year-old son.
Giacomo provided affable jockey Mike Smith his first Derby victory on his 12th try. Smith had finished second three times. This was the first Derby for the colt's trainer, John Shirreffs.
Having ridden Giacomo in all his races (as well as having ridden Giacomo's sire Holy Bull), Smith was as qualified as anyone to explain the shocking transformation from California loser to Derby victor.
"Every race was just a little step forward, a little step forward, a little step forward. He didn't want him exactly right until today," Smith said, referring to Shirreffs. "And he got him perfect."
Giacomo broke from post 10 and settled far back in the stampeding pack. While Spanish Chestnut blazed the way, Giacomo raced in 18th place. If that wasn't bad enough, he got fanned wide around the first turn.
But Spanish Chestnut set some of the fastest fractions in Derby history, providing hope for closers. Spanish Chestnut raced far too fast to last 1 1/4 miles, and he pulled along others who would eventually falter, such as Flower Alley, High Fly and Going Wild.
Smith rode Giacomo patiently down the backstretch until approaching the far turn. The colt began passing horses, and then Smith swung wide around the bend. Giacomo wasn't the widest; Buzzards Bay was. They moved together and looked as if they might sweep into the lead side-by-side.
But Smith steered Giacomo toward the inside. He found himself behind a wall of horses and swung him back outside. Then Giacomo took off.
"He's good on the outside," Smith said. "I got him to the outside, and he just kept grinding and grinding and didn't stop until he got it."
Giacomo gained the lead five strides before the wire. So many horses barreled down the stretch together that it proved difficult keeping them straight. Afleet Alex and his jockey, Jeremy Rose, had broken free, and Rose steered the colt toward the rail in what appeared to be a winning move.
But Afleet Alex tired just enough to allow Giacomo and Closing Argument to charge past. The unheralded Closing Argument had raced in sixth and taken the lead in deep stretch. The winner's time was 2 minutes, 2.75 seconds.
The second-largest crowd in Derby history - 156,435 - watched the race that left many scratching their heads. It was hot, about 80 degrees, and sunny.
Nearly everyone had become enamored of Bellamy Road, because of his 17 1/2 -length romp in the Wood Memorial Stakes. But Shirreffs, Giacomo's little-known trainer, pointed out that it wasn't one race that was so important but a combination of races. Step by step, Shirreffs prepared Giacomo for his great assignment.
"I didn't think that he'd hit his peak," Shirreffs said of the preparatory races. "I thought he had a better race in him."
He did. But besides Shirreffs and maybe Smith, who saw that coming?
1. Giacomo $102.60 45.80 19.80
2. Closing Argument $70.00 24.80
3. Afleet Alex $4.60
Exacta: $9,814.80* Trifecta: $133,134.80* Superfecta: $1,728,507* *-Derby record
Preakness: May 21
Belmont: June 11