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Giant Oak a Different Horse From Last Fair Grounds Visit

Shaun Bridgmohan describes Giant Oak’s old running style as that of “a big, playful kid who never really had his mind on what he was supposed to be doing.” There are even races the jockey is convinced they could have won if this son of Giant’s Causeway had kept his mind on business. Still, through a series of near-misses and less-than-satisfactory results, Brigdmohan never lost faith in his mount. 

“This horse is going to win a very big race for you,” the jockey told trainer Chris Block. “I don’t know where or when it’s going to be, but you and I both know he has the ability to do it.”

Going into Saturday’s Grade II, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, Bridgmohan has already seen the fulfillment of his prophecy. The Illinois-bred comes off back-to-back wins in Grade I races – a Feb. 5 victory in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, and another (second by a head, moved to first after the disqualification of Successful Dan) in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26. Named 2010 Horse of the Year and Champion Older Handicap Male by the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation, this 5-year-old runner finally seems to be coming into his own. With 24 starts and a 5-5-3 record earned in the course of four years, it’s a sweet reward for his connections.

“Any time a son of Giant’s Causeway walks into the barn, you have to be excited,” Block said when asked to recall taking Giant Oak into training for Rudy and Virginia Tarra. “He’s a big, strong horse with a long stride, which is a big asset. You could see from early on that he was probably the kind of horse that if you didn’t push too hard, you’d see better results as he got older.”

The Tarras, both 73-year-old residents of Illinois, have been in the racing industry since 1962 and are staunch supporters of the breeding program in their state. Their broodmares are bred to Kentucky Stallions but foal back in Illinois at Richard Duchossois’ Hill ’N Dale Farm, where Giant Oak was born out of the Crafty Prospector mare Crafty Oak.

Giant Oak initial visit to Fair Grounds was back in 2009, after breaking his maiden first out on the lawn at Arlington Park, winning an allowance event on that oval’s Polytrack by five lengths, and running second by a neck in the 2008 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs as a 2-year-old. The Grade III Risen Star was his first race of the 3-year-old season, and a fifth behind winner Friesan Fire merited his start in the Grade II Louisiana Derby, where he ran fourth on a sloppy track behind the same horse. He then finished second in the Illinois Derby, but his connections decided to skip a Kentucky Derby berth for a start on the turf in the Arlington Classic back at Arlington, which Giant Oak won.

“He put himself into the Derby picture when he finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but he had an unfortunate trip in the Risen Star and a wet track in the Louisiana Derby,” said Block. “They weren’t really races you could judge him by. He ran a good second in the Illinois Derby but we decided to give him some time and go back to grass, which is where he broke his maiden. He’s been pretty successful switching back and forth but our main focus has been the dirt. It’s just been one of those situations where we’ve tried to spot him in races where we thought he’d be as competitive as possible.”

In 2010, Giant Oak returned to Fair Grounds for an attempt at the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap and the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. In the midst of a 14-race losing streak, he ran third in the latter and fifth in the former, issuing a “mild close” and “little impact” according to chart callers. Coming back after four career starts in New Orleans without a win, Block admits, is somewhat daunting.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “He certainly has not run his best races there. Last year in the Mineshaft he was coming off a long layoff and we were really using that race as a prep for the next race. Then, in the New Orleans Handicap, it appeared that the track that day was playing more to the speed, which certainly works against this horse. So yeah, I have those concerns on Saturday – whether it’s the surface he isn’t fond of, and I’m concerned about the pace, but this race sets up good in our schedule, it gives us five weeks to the Alysheba at Churchill and a six-week span to the Stephen Foster, which is our mid-year goal.”

And the trainer’s one consolation is in the steady progression of his horse.

“It used to be that when you put him in gear and asked him to run, he’d run, but he didn’t know what his purpose was,” Block said. “Now he seems more competitive in the later stages of the race. I saw a different horse that day in the Clark, a horse I think really took a step in the right direction. In the Donn, the horse certainly looked the best I’ve seen him look since he started as a 2-year-old. The way he finished and the mindset he had since the last race was very professional and more aggressive, and I believe he’ll carry that into his next start.”

Giant Oak will ship in Wednesday from Florida on the same flight as Louisiana Derby contender Mucho Macho Man. He joins an eight-horse field in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans Handicap, which has attracted the top three finishers from the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap run here on Feb. 19 – Paul McGee trainee Demarcation, the Todd Pletcher-trained Mission Impazible, and Apart from the barn of trainer Al Stall Jr. Bridgmohan likes their chances.

“Chris has done a phenomenal job with this horse, he’s five now and still around, running hard,” the jockey said. “He’s finally showing his best and everyone has had faith in him. We always knew he was a late-developing horse whose mind just needed to grow into his big body. Even though he’s been slow to come around, it’s good to know that his mind is in a different place from where he was as a young horse. I’m going into this race with the utmost confidence in him after his last race.”