Giant Oak had gone 14 consecutive starts without winning a race from the summer of 2009 to fall of 2010. In a span of a little more than two months, he has bagged a pair of grade I victories.
With Shaun Bridgmohan aboard for trainer Chris Block, the son of Giant's Causeway rallied from off the pace with a wide stretch run and passed a trio of horses late to post a two-length victory in the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO) Feb. 5 at Gulfstream Park. The win validated his previous victory in the Nov. 27 Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, which came via disqualification.
A 5-year-old homebred for Virginia H. Tarra Trust, Giant Oak was graded stakes placed five times during his winless streak, but had not posted a victory since the May, 2009 Arlington Classic before he was awarded the top prize in the Clark when Successful Dan was disqualified for interference. That losing streak is a distant memory now, as he proved that he is one of the best horses in the handicap division when defeating a stellar field in the Donn.
The pace was not only quick but contested in the 1 1/18-mile contest, as Square Eddie and Morning Line never gave one another a breather through splits of :23.36, :46.73, and 1:10.50. Not far behind them were another pair racing in tandem, Rule and I Want Revenge. There was barely anything separating those four as they hit the quarter-pole, and as they battled into the final furlong Rule and Morning Line—the second and third-place finishers, respectively, of the Jan. 8 Hal’s Hope (gr. III)—forged a narrow advantage over I Want Revenge, who ran a big race off a lengthy layoff.
But Giant Oak, well back in fifth as they rounded the final turn, was swung wide for his stretch bid and was full of run. He passed all of his rivals inside the sixteenth-pole to win going away. The final time on the fast dirt was 1:48.23.
Morning Line, who raced nearly the entire time without breather, ran a huge race to finish second under John Velazquez, a nose in front of Rule. I Want Revenge was fourth in the field of eight.
“There was plenty of speed in the race so I was able to sit back and ride a patient race," Bridgmohan said. "He’s just really growing up. He’s come such a long way. It’s so good to see because he’s always had a ton of ability and I’m happy that’s he’s finally getting to show that.”
Giant Oak improved to 5-5-3 from 24 starts and upped his earnings to $1,256,677. He was bred in Illinois and is out of the Crafty Prospector mare Crafty Oak. Prior to the Clark, he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon (gr. III).
“After the Clark we decided to give him a break and he spent three weeks on a farm in Ocala before coming down here," Block said. "He never seemed to care for the track in New Orleans that much (Fair Grounds), so between that and the fact that this race is a grade I, we decided to point him for this race.
"Also, he’s by Giant’s Causeway and I think he’s just gotten better with age and maturation as that line seems to do. He trained very well over track and seemed to like the change of scenery. I had a good feeling going into the race. I’ve never seen him get up into the bridle the way he did today. We’ll talk about the options, including Dubai (World Cup), and make a decision with the owners.”
Sent off as the fifth choice, Giant Oak paid $16.80, $7.20, and $4.20. The exacta (4-3) returned $66.20 and the trifecta (4-3-8) was worth $148.50 for $1.
Fly Down, the slight 5-2 favorite, finished fifth, followed by Ron the Greek, Hear Ye Hear Ye, Eldaafer, and Square Eddie.
“I was hoping the other horse (Square Eddie) would go to the lead so I could set up right outside of him, but he never cleared so I had to stay in there and keep my position at the rail," Velazquez said of Morning Line's effort. "I had to defend my spot. After that, he ran a heck of a race. I just wish I had a better post position.”