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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.