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Ear for music, eye for thoroughbreds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The crowd of people outside Pimlico's Stall 40 is excited, and you can hardly blame them. It's a sunny morning just days before the Preakness Stakes, and inside the shaded barn - the one traditionally reserved for the Kentucky Derby winner - the gray colt Giacomo, his eyes bright, is lighting into part of his daily regimen: an extra-large smoothie.

"Apples, carrots and wheatgrass," trainer John Shirreffs says with a laugh as he feeds the frisky 3-year-old and pretends to taste the stuff himself. "It's delicious; it's nutritious!" Cameras click, hangers-on gawk, reporters scribble.

A TV cameraman, though, is miffed. "Excuse me," he says, pointing toward a tall, silver-haired gentleman standing to one side. "Could you get out of the way? You're blocking my shot."

Jerome S. Moss, in fact, doesn't mind at all. Giacomo's 70-year-old owner steps into a shadow and continues a private conversation. You'd hardly guess he had co-founded a major record company that brought the Carpenters, Peter Frampton, The Police and Sting to the world's attention. Or that he turned Giacomo, a 50-to-1 long shot, into the Kentucky Derby champion virtually nobody saw coming.

But those who have observed Moss' low-key style in either of his high-stakes fields knows he has always followed his instincts with a certainty approaching the eerie.

"Critics are entitled to their opinions," he says, "but in the end, it doesn't matter. They don't make the records, and they don't run the races."

In music and horse racing, Moss says, "you have an opportunity to spot talent, invest in that talent as opposed to other talents, and bring it out. If you do things right, and you're lucky, you occasionally have these moments when you can stand back and watch it all blossom in public, where millions get to see what you've seen."

Moss smiles behind his dark glasses. At 6-to-1 odds, Preakness handicappers have made his horse a long shot again. Moss is right where he wants to be, enjoying a spotlight he plotted to create, by standing just outside it.

Started in music

Moss started learning the music business in 1960 when he left his native New York for L.A., hoping to make it as a singer. Before long, he realized his talents were on the business side, though, and those of his partner, Herb Alpert, were in playing. In 1962, as the two started running their A&M; Records label out of a garage, Alpert's Tijuana Brass band had a surprise hit, "The Lonely Bull." They had to borrow $35,000 from a friend to press enough LPs. Three years later, the Tijuana Brass had a staggering five hits in Billboard's Top 20.

Moss then ventured into rock, where A&M; signed unknown artists for little money. Moss' ear was the difference. "When I hear somebody's music, and it moves me, connects me to his personal life," he says, "I know I have something." His leaps of faith gave Cat Stevens, Carole King, Styx and others a chance to grow. They were among the artists who cranked out 200 gold and platinum records for A&M; in under three decades.

Good taste, a light touch and judicious investment ruled the day. A&M;, based in Hollywood, produced the same number of albums each year that CBS made in a month - and sales averaged $100 million a year. All the while, the bosses, both notoriously publicity-shy, retained the place's personal feel.

"Jerry radiates success in a completely non-offensive way," a co-worker told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "He could be cutting your bowels out, and you'd still like him."

No less an expert than Arista's Clive Davis called A&M; "an inspiration." By 1990, when they sold the shop, Alpert and Moss had reinvented an industry.

A modest record

Small wonder that Moss, who bought his first horse with a friend in 1970, is less obsessed with odds than the average owner. "Actually, sometimes I'm amazed at how good odds can be," he says.

Giacomo had a modest record, he admits, but "there were things people missed about him," Moss says. "When he finished second to [Derby favorite] Declan's Moon in the [December] Hollywood Futurity, it was by just a length. We knew if we watched him we might have a Derby horse." When he placed a disappointing fourth in the critical Santa Anita Derby in April, he finished just two lengths back - in a race without a "pace horse," exactly the sort that disfavors Giacomo's tendency to finish with a flourish.

Moss and Shirreffs, the trainer, also keep in mind that a winning horse is one that peaks at the right time. "You breed a horse, train him, stay with him and hope his best moment comes in those certain few weeks of the year," Moss says.

Picking future stars in horse racing is more complex than it is in music, says Moss, who still sees himself as a novice in judging equine talent. But Shirreffs, who won the Derby on his first try, is his alter ego in racing. "He's not an easy man to keep out of the barn," Moss says. "He can look at a horse for hours. He sees things ... others don't."

Trusting such people has guided Moss and his wife, Ann, to unusually good purchases. In the past two decades, they've co-owned winners in more than 30 stakes races. And their breeding is just as judicious. Giacomo's jockey, Mike Smith, rode a Derby favorite, Holy Bull, in 1994, and the impressed Moss team bred the horse with Set Them Free (named for the 1985 Sting hit). The union produced Styler (named for Sting's wife, Trudie Styler) and, later, Styler's full brother, Giacomo (named for Sting and Styler's son).

"John loved Styler, so he was always interested in working with Giacomo," Moss says.

In an era when too many owners seem intent on buying their way into winner's circles, Moss' long-term strategy has impressed the powers-that-be. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made Moss a commissioner of the seven-member California Horse Racing Board in 2004.

As in music, Moss looks inside his potential stars. In Giacomo, breeders saw an immature colt, but Moss saw a horse of unusual spirit. "He's eager," the owner says, "but he's also one very calm dude."

When Giacomo encountered the huge crowd at Churchill Downs, "he was frisky, he was alive, but he was within himself," Moss says. "He wasted no nervous energy, like some immature horses do. That's the personality you want."

Moss, who left the record industry in 2000 when he sold his company's publishing rights, says he saw something at the end of the Derby that heartened him. After Giacomo crossed the finish line, he kept running.

"Spirit," Moss says. "Giacomo tries. No matter what happens, he always tries."

Opening up

A low-profile man in a high-profile business, Moss grants few interviews but since his Derby win has become more forthcoming. Things were so chaotic at the Kentucky Derby, he confides, that he could barely see the track. He didn't even know where the finish line was until the race was over. The only forecast he'll make for the Preakness is that he'll scope out the finish line ahead of time.

The handicappers have picked Giacomo to finish fourth - a standing other owners of a Derby champion might find insulting. Not Moss. "It was a dream just to get to Kentucky," he says. "But you know what? The race really didn't seem to take much out of Giacomo, and it was only two weeks ago. He looks about three hands taller than he did. He knows what he has done. Who knows? We think his best may be yet to come."

If horse racing is about timing, Moss, who says success requires thinking several steps down the road, may be cheered by the fact he turned 70 the day after the Derby. "I didn't have to do much more to celebrate than that," he says with a laugh.

For now, though, he stands in the shadows a few feet from the stall where Giacomo rests, tail twitching in silence. Moss looks over at Kenny Mayne, an anchorman/jokester who makes comedy sketches for ESPN.

"We've got an endorsement opportunity for you!" hollers Mayne, hoisting what's left of Giacomo's energy drink. "How does 'Giacomocha' sound? How about 'the Giacomo Juicer'?"

"Have you spoken to my lawyers?" Moss asks, laughing.

Behind his sunglasses, Jerry Moss smiles, but perhaps not because of Mayne. He has spent years orchestrating this moment, and he's enjoying it in his own way - grinning, perhaps, at a wry punchline to come, at a joke nobody else can hear.

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