01/09/2009 12:00AM

For Block, watching Giant Oak worth a trip


NEW ORLEANS - A couple minutes after one of the Fair Grounds outriders made a spectacular catch of a rampaging loose horse going the wrong way at the three-eighths pole here Friday morning, there came a spectacular-looking chestnut with a big white face, going the right way as he galumphed past the three-eighths pole in the midst of a five-furlong work. That was Giant Oak, turning in his second timed workout of the winter as he prepares for the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 7.

Giant Oak rates as one of the top 3-year-old prospects stabled at Fair Grounds. Based at Arlington Park over the summer, Giant Oak turned heads with a sharp debut win in a two-turn turf allowance race. More recently, he overcame a wide trip in his dirt debut to finish a close, closing second behind Beethoven in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 29 at Churchill.

That performance earned Giant Oak a winter at Fair Grounds. His trainer, Chicago-based Chris Block, does not go south with a winter string, but has regularly sent turf horses to past Fair Grounds meets. Those horses have raced for other trainers, but Block is staying involved with Giant Oak, much of the time through an assistant that travels with Giant Oak, but also coming to Fair Grounds for any major exercise, like Friday's.

Giant Oak, working with jockey James Graham up, was timed in 1:01.40, a second slower than the morning's fastest five-furlong breeze. Block said Giant Oak can be a disinterested work horse by himself, and he was happy that another horse broke off for a work just before Giant Oak picked up steam on the backstretch.

"He kind of latched onto that horse around the far turn," said Block. "That worked out well. For his second work back, that was pretty good."

Giant Oak is Illinois-bred in name only, a son of Giant's Causeway out of the graded-route-stakes-winning mare Crafty Oak. He is quite tall, but has far more substance than most youngsters of his height. Where trainers often find themselves fretting over fussy eaters who risk losing weight, Block said care had to be taken to keep Giant Oak from eating too much and getting too heavy. And that is not a bad thing at all for an obviously talented colt getting ready to head into battle early in his 3-year-old season.

Slow starts for most newcomers

Fair Grounds eagerly welcomed six trainers new to the meet this season, and handed out a total of 136 stalls to Wally Dollase, Greg Foley, Steve Klesaris, Steve Margolis, Doug O'Neill, and Dale Romans. But the activity and production from these first-time Fair Grounds barns have been mixed.

Altogether, the six new barns have sent out a total of 83 starters, a relatively low number. Dollase has gone 2 for 8, Klesaris 2 for 17, Margolis 4 for 20, O'Neill 2 for 17, and Romans just 0 for 5. Foley, who was given 20 stalls, probably is the lowest-profile member of the group, but has gotten off to the best start, winning with 6 of 16 starters.

"I just looked at the condition book and tried to bring horses that I thought would fit," said Foley, who in the past has usually wintered at Turfway Park.

O'Neill was getting blanked at the meet before winning with a pair of lower-level horses on Monday's card. Margolis has been fairly active in maiden and allowance races, with Dollase also participating in similar races.

Klesaris so far has not had the kind of meet that might have been expected. His trio of talented young fillies has wound up on the sidelines so far, rather than at the races, and the outbreak of the equine herpesvirus at Fair Grounds has kept Klesaris from shuffling stock back and forth from the East Coast the way he planned.

"I had 10 horses ready to go at Christmas, and they're still stuck here," he said Friday morning.

The 3-year-old filly Livin Lovin made it to Louisiana, but chipped an ankle days before she was to start in the Delta Princess. And rather than push on with Sky Diva and Holiday Girl in December, Klesaris gave them a winter break.

"Instead of going on with my better stock, I gave them time off," Klesaris said.

Sky Diva, winner of the Grade 1 Frizette, will ship to Fair Grounds once the herpesvirus situation is cleared up, which could happen as soon as next week. Grade 3 Tempted winner Livin Lovin also is on the way back after undergoing routine surgery to remove the bone chip.

Meanwhile, Klesaris is trying to adapt to the conditions at hand; he has claimed six Louisiana-breds in recent weeks.

"When you go to a new place, you've got to watch and see what works," he said.

New track super gets good reviews

Glowing reviews of new Fair Grounds track superintendent Brian Jabelmann have been issuing forth from local horsemen. Jabelmann has been on the job two weeks, and backstretch regulars here seem uniformly pleased with his approach.

"He's a worker," said trainer Larry Robideaux, who advocated Jabelmann's hiring after seeing his work at Louisiana Downs. "He's not afraid to put a shovel in the ground, and he knows what he's doing."

Jabelmann, a Canadian, grew up in Fort Erie, a racing town, and got his start at the track there. He served as director of racing surfaces at Woodbine before forming his own company to work as a consultant. Jabelmann went to Louisiana Downs in 2007, and said he has plans for major off-season work on both the dirt track and the turf course at Fair Grounds.

"You don't want to do anything radical in mid-season," said Jabelmann.

* The Fair Grounds equine herpesvirus situation could basically be resolved by Thursday or Friday, state veterinarian Dr. Tom David said. All the horses still under quarantine here - those in the barn that houses trainers Dallas Stewart and Neil Howard - are to undergo a second round of herpes tests on Tuesday. If all come back negative, the quarantine will be lifted.