John Shirreffs had to jump around. He
just couldn't help it.
The normally reserved trainer turns bashful when recalling his
jubilant burst through the Churchill Downs grandstand two years ago
after 50-1 shot Giacomo pulled off the second-biggest upset in
Kentucky Derby history. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith expertly
picked off horses down the stretch to win in the final yards.
"I just tried to not step on the person next to me," Shirreffs
said Tuesday. "I didn't think I could get that excited, to be
It's a moment etched in Shirreffs' memory, one he hopes to
relive Saturday when Giacomo's half brother, Tiago, heads to the
post in this year's Derby.
The similarities are striking. The two horses come from the same
dam - Set Them Free - with different sires: Giacomo from Holy Bull,
Tiago from Pleasant Tap. Both are owned by Jerry and Ann Moss,
ridden by Smith and trained by Shirreffs, the soft-spoken Southern
Californian who just smiles when contemplating another unexpected
run for the roses.
"There's so many little connections, it's just great," he
Alike in temperament if not experience, Shirreffs can see some
of Tiago's older sibling in his 3-year-old chestnut colt, who won
the Santa Anita Derby last month.
"Both are very focused and intense horses but they're not real
nervous types," Shirreffs said. "They're really racehorses. They
love to run."
Giacomo cemented his legend in the stretch at the Derby, roaring
from 11th to victory in the final quarter-mile. It's a move Tiago
repeated in winning the Santa Anita Derby, as Smith moved Tiago
wide to get some room then ducked to the rail to edge King of the
Roxy by a half-length.
It's a victory Shirreffs credited to Smith, who seemed to find
the common ground between the two horses, using the experience he
gained on Giacomo to figure out his still-maturing half brother.
"We really didn't know what sort of style he was going to have
because he had a little more speed, a little more kick than
Giacomo," Shirreffs said. "With Mike taking him out, letting him
relax first then letting him out a notch and then another notch he
was able to show his style."
It's a style that Shirreffs hopes can make up for a lack of
substance in Tiago's resume. While Giacomo raced seven times before
the Derby, this year's race will be just the fifth start of Tiago's
"As a 2-year-old he was a little immature," Shirreffs said.
"Mentally he was good; physically his body wasn't ready for the
rigors of racing."
It didn't take him long to adapt. Tiago won his first race at
Santa Anita in January in his second career start after stumbling
in the early going.
"He got stopped in that race," Shirreffs said. "You're
talking about the maturity level, for a horse in his second race to
mature and be able to recover and come back showed a lot."
Still, it didn't stop him from growing concerned when Tiago got
trapped on the rail in the Robert Lewis Stakes in March, fading to
seventh while struggling to adjust to "dirt getting kicked in his
face," as Shirreffs put it.
"We were kind of at a loss," he said.
Shirreffs put a call in to Smith and asked him to take a stab at
figuring out the colt. A mile into the Santa Anita Derby, Smith
seemed to recapture the magic that he'd had with Giacomo, pushing
all the right buttons as Tiago recalled memories of that glorious
Saturday two years ago and gave Shirreffs hope that history might
be repeating itself.
"He's made huge leaps," Shirreffs said. "He's well-seasoned
now and we think he's ready to race."