It has been more than 15 years since trainer John Shirreffs won the Kentucky Derby, but when he is asked of that glorious May day back in 2005 at Churchill Downs, the memories are vivid. The crowd noise, the feeling when Giacomo began his move, the temporary disbelief, the presence of mind to take it all in, all before being shepherded to the winner's podium, then a post-race celebration in the Derby Museum, before finally heading back to the barn to check on his horse - it all comes flooding back.
Those memories are precious. So much so that Shirreffs has tried over the years to avoid watching a replay of the race, not wanting to alter the point of view etched in his mind.
"First of all, really excited to go over there and run Giacomo," Shirreffs recalled of that Derby, the first in which he had a starter. "Excited just to be in the Derby."
He watched from trackside, near the tunnel that brings the horses from the paddock to the main track.
"Just an electric atmosphere," he said. "All the people yelling and screaming. Like being at a great party.
"After they went by us and into the first turn, I had to watch on the monitor in the infield. Turning into the stretch I could see his shadow roll, could see he was making a little run. I thought he might be third. He's coming on the outside. Relentless pursuit."
Exercise rider Frankie Herrarte, standing next to Shirreffs, shouted, "He's gonna win!"
"The tunnel was so far down the track from where the wire was," Shirreffs said. "After he won, everything was a little less focused. What are you supposed to do now? I was without much thought at the moment. You just want to savor something that good, soak it all in. It's so special, so meaningful for a trainer to win the Kentucky Derby."
Shirreffs is hoping to make more memories Saturday, when he sends out Honor A. P., the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, in the 146th Derby. If Honor A. P., Shirreffs's fifth Derby starter, is successful, he would make Shirreffs one of only 20 trainers who have won the Derby at least twice. And it would add to a resume that includes multiple Breeders' Cup wins, victories in most of the biggest races on the West Coast, and his piece de resistance, guiding the Hall of Fame mare Zenyatta to a record of 19 wins in 20 starts over the span of four seasons.
Shirreffs, 75, has led a fascinating life. He rode hunters and jumpers as a youth in New York and New Hampshire - where his father flew for Eastern Airlines - enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam, set out for Hawaii to surf only to wind up instead working anew with horses in Northern California after being a rodeo cowboy, then gravitated between the racetrack and farms before returning to the racetrack for good in 1994.