02/04/2009 12:00AM

Block gets shot at big horse


NEW ORLEANS - Each winter, 3-year-olds with obvious talent winter at Fair Grounds and emerge from the Louisiana Derby as contenders for the Triple Crown. If the massive colt with the rich chestnut coat that walked into Barn 26 on the Fair Grounds backstretch after a routine gallop Wednesday morning takes that path, it will be under unusual circumstances.

First off, Giant Oak is an Illinois-bred. He's never even won a dirt race, but the horse also is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's Risen Star Stakes, the first race of his 3-year-old season. And the way Giant Oak ended his 2-year-old campaign - with a wide, tough-trip second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs - is the reason he's in New Orleans.

His trainer, Chris Block, is a Chicagoan, not a New Orleanian. From a leading Illinois racing family, which campaigns racehorses as Team Block, Block's annual focus is Arlington Park. Spring and fall mean Hawthorne, and in winter's depths, Block has more time for his family. He and his wife, Linda, have a 12-year-old son, David, and Block has chosen a year-round Chicago gig over taking a string to a warm-climate winter venue.

"With David in school, I thought I wanted to be there for him and Linda until he graduates from high school," Block said.

Block already has traveled to Fair Grounds five times during this meet but still is away most mornings. That leaves Giant Oak's day-to-day activity to trainer Neil Pessin - "a great asset," Block said - and 23-year-old Illinois native Drew Coontz. Coontz, a college graduate, went to work for Block in November 2007 and jumped when Block offered him the chance to travel to Kentucky with Giant Oak in October. The horse was stabled at Keeneland before moving to Churchill and then came directly to Fair Grounds, and Coontz was at his side every step.

"With only one horse, I do have spare time, but what I do is go back to the motel and sleep, so I can be 110 percent for this job," Coontz said.

Coontz-to-Pessin-to-Block - sounds like an old double-play combination. But Rudy Tarra, who along with his wife, Virginia, bred and own Giant Oak, could not be more comfortable with it.

"We got the horse with what I consider to be the best trainer in the country," said Tarra, who lives outside Chicago in Orland Park and did well in the trucking business before selling his company and retiring. "First of all, he's a good person, and with me, everything starts with that."

Tarra has gotten unsolicited advice: You might have the big horse, so you should get a big trainer.

"Some people have said you need [Bobby] Frankel or [Rick] Dutrow, cause these guys have been there," Tarra said. "But you've got to realize, these guys were rookies, too. They're no different than Chris. Somewhere along the line, someone's got to give the person the horse."

The Tarras have been in the game since the early 1960s and have tried for years to get a top prospect out of Giant Oak's dam, Crafty Oak, one of five mares they breed. Four-year-old Apple Martini is pretty good, but Giant Oak has the potential to be special. Until he demonstrates otherwise, however, potential is all Block will concede the horse.

"I think in some respects he's still an open book," Block said. "His mind still has a ways to go. I haven't thought once about [the Kentucky Derby] yet. We have to wait for Saturday to see."

Illinois-bred in name only, Giant Oak is by Giant's Causeway. He was unusually tall even as a yearling, and Block held him out of shorter summer races, awaiting a two-turn turf debut on Aug. 17.

"At the top of the lane, I thought he had no shot," said Block, but eating up ground with giant strides, Giant Oak won by two lengths and then captured a two-turn Polytrack allowance race by five a month later.

The Polytrack win told Block little about Giant Oak's quality, and Giant Oak got totally buried behind fading horses in the Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland. Block says that he's measuring Giant Oak mainly off his fast-closing neck loss to Beethoven in the Kentucky Jockey Club. There have been other positive signs. Giant Oak has never blown Block away with solo workouts, but Sunday, he worked alone and turned in a bullet five-furlong work.

Giant Oak's raw ability did not escape the watchful eye of International Equine Acquisitions Holdings, which made an aggressive bid for Giant Oak after the Kentucky Jockey Club.

"I'd say he is a legitimate Triple Crown prospect," said IEAH co-president Michael Iavarone, who confirmed that Tarra had been presented an offer.

That contract still sits in Tarra's desk.

"The offers were so high - I can't tell you how high," Tarra said. "We have three sons and we sat down to discuss this whole thing. It could have made all three of them pretty happy, but it was an easy decision. We all are going to ride this thing. It might only go to Saturday - you never know."