Tiago Bringing Back Memories for Trainer

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 3, 2007

LOUISVILLE, May 2 -- Trainer John Shirreffs caught a quiet moment after his morning work outside Barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backstretch and watched his Kentucky Derby starter Tiago snooze peacefully in his stall.

"It felt like the Kentucky Derby," Shirreffs said, referring to Tiago's weave through traffic from out of nowhere to win the Santa Anita Derby last month. "Didn't it look like Giacomo?"

It did look like Giacomo, the 50-1 long shot who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby, but the resemblance was more than just passing other horses. Tiago is Giacomo's baby half-brother, a son of the mare Set Them Free and owned by music executive Jerry Moss, the co-founder of A&M Records.

Giacomo also prepped for the Kentucky Derby with a run in the Santa Anita Derby, finishing an undistinguished fourth. Even with the victory, Tiago received mid-priced morning-line odds of 15-1 from Churchill Downs linemaker Mike Battaglia for Saturday.

It hasn't been a particularly good spring for Shirreffs, 61, a Vietnam War veteran who is known for putting in an extraordinary amount of time working with his horses, while often skipping the glory of the winner's circle photograph.

He entered the week with just three wins from 35 starts this year, but one was the Santa Anita Derby and another a victory with his good turf horse After Market on Saturday in the Grade III Inglewood Handicap.

Tiago could make this an unforgettable spring if he can overcome his relative inexperience -- he has made just four career starts -- and win the Kentucky Derby. Shirreffs had expected a maximum effort when the colt ran in the Robert S. Lewis Stakes on March 3 at Santa Anita, but Great Hunter beat him easily and Tiago labored home in seventh.

Off at Giacomo-like odds of 29-1 in his next start, the Santa Anita Derby, Tiago unleashed the big kick Shirreffs knew he possessed.

"After the Robert Lewis we were so disappointed," Shirreffs said. "We were down for a week. We expected so much and nothing happened. You have this little time frame to accomplish things with 3-year-olds and get enough graded money. So many colts don't get to run in the Kentucky Derby. When you have one, you have to try to help the horse get there."

To help Tiago, Shirreffs decided to call on Giacomo's jockey, Mike Smith, for the first time in the Santa Anita Derby. The addition completed the old Giacomo team, and Tiago responded.

Shirreffs has loved the way his colt has looked this week at Churchill Downs. On Wednesday, Tiago came out bucking under exercise rider Frankie Herrarte before galloping 1 1/2 miles around the track.

Back at the barn, Shirreffs didn't sound like a man training a long shot. Asked how he thought the horse was doing, Shirreffs shot back: "You saw him. You tell me."

Pletcher's 'Riches'

Oaks Draw trainer Todd Pletcher not only will send out five horses in the Kentucky Derby, but also the favorite in the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks.

Rags to Riches, who has won two straight Grade I races, including the Santa Anita Oaks, was named the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the race Friday, which itself draws a crowd of more than 100,000 to Churchill Downs. Rags to Riches's only loss came at Churchill Downs, in her debut, a 4 1/2 -furlong race last June.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company