05/20/2009 12:00AM

Giant Oak starts road to turf bonus

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Alexander Barkoff
Giant Oak, second in the Illinois Derby, won a maiden race in a grass route.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The payoff for resisting the Triple Crown's siren call could start coming Saturday for the connections of Giant Oak.

Despite turning in his top performance at 3 by finishing second in the Illinois Derby on April 4 at Hawthorne, Giant Oak was not sent to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, and instead went to Arlington Park. The plan was a run at the Mid-America Triple, Arlington's three-race turf series - and that plan swings into action Saturday.

Giant Oak is one of 10 horses entered in the $150,000 Arlington Classic, a 1 1/16-mile grass race that leads to the American Derby in July and the Grade 1 Secretariat in August. Honor Glide in 1997 was the last horse to sweep the triple, and for his trouble he got no more than hardware for the mantelpiece and a congratulatory pat on the rump. This year, Arlington has put up a $500,000 bonus for a horse who runs the table.

There's a small out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire element at work with Giant Oak, who dodged the Triple Crown heavy-heads, but landed in a surprisingly strong edition of the Arlington Classic. Also entered were Orthodox, winner of the Grade 3 American Turf on Oaks Day at Churchill; El Crespo, another Grade 3 turf-stakes winner; Golden Mexico, unbeaten in two career starts, and victorious over talented Affirmtatif last out at Keeneland; and two more turf-stakes winners, Turfiste and Proceed Bee.

Had Giant Oak pushed on to the Kentucky Derby, he might not have made the race anyway.

"Weather-wise, it would certainly have caused an issue for us, with the rain," said trainer Chris Block. "We probably would have leaned toward scratching."

Block said he has no regrets about deciding to point Giant Oak for Arlington turf rather than Triple Crown dirt, even though Musket Man, the only horse to beat Giant Oak at Hawthorne, has turned out to be one of the top 3-year-olds, with third-place finishes in the Derby and Preakness.

"It doesn't change our opinion of our decision, but it makes us feel better about how our horse has run," said Block, who trains Giant Oak for Virginia and Rudy Tarra.

Giant Oak won his career debut last summer at Arlington racing two turns on turf, and looked strong doing so. In his only other grass start, the Bourbon Stakes last fall at Keeneland, Giant Oak got buried in traffic at the fence, and never had a chance to run. Block suspects that Giant Oak, a son of Giant's Causeway, will turn out to be at least as good on turf as he has proven on dirt, but until Saturday at least, he can't really know.

"We're anxious to see what he's going to do on the turf," said Block. "He may just be an average horse on the turf. Who knows? That's what we're going to find out."

McGaughey an unusual presence

In the last five years, trainer Shug McGaughey has started three horses at Arlington, but McGaughey will equal that total on Saturday's card alone. McGaughey, reached by phone in New York, entered Vacation in the Hanshin Cup, Consequence in the American 1000 Guineas, and Venetian Causeway in the Matron. Two McGaughey-trained horses, Rescue Squad and Conservative, had been mentioned as possible for the Arlington Classic, but neither is coming.

McGaughey's trio was supposed to ship from New York to Chicago on Tuesday, but mechanical problems grounded their plane, and the trip was delayed until Wednesday evening, McGaughey said.

Venetian Causeway won an entry-level allowance race over the Matron's 1 1/8 miles last month at Keeneland, but she is in tough. The Matron drew a field of 11, headed by 2008 winner Indescribable, who comfortably won the Grade 3 Doubledogdare last month at Keeneland. The others in the Grade 3 Matron are Born to Be, Boudoir, Euphony, Gloria Goodbody, Home's the Best, Kiss With a Twist, Laguna Plateada, Serenading, and Sky Mom.

Vacation is here because he has run well in longer one-turn races and on Polytrack, but never in combination. The Hanshin, a Grade 3 one-turn Polytrack mile, could suit Vacation well, McGaughey said, and off-the-pace Vacation should have plenty of speed in front of him. Three Hanshin entrants - Spotsgone, Stonehouse, and Voy Por Uno Mas - are free-running sorts, and the race's pace figures to be swift. Also entered were 2008 winner Coragil Cat, along with Amazing Results, Cherokee Artist, and Dominican, who was supplemented for $4,000.

The American 1000 Guineas, a one-mile grass race for 3-year-old fillies, drew a field of eight, somewhat light for a $200,000 race. Consequence finished third in the Grade 2 Beaumont at seven furlongs on Keeneland's main track last out, and McGaughey believes Consequence is a better filly on turf. Her top rivals Saturday will include Afternoon Stroll and Hot Cha Cha, the one-two finishers in the Appalachian at Keeneland.

McGaughey said he could make another Arlington invasion later this meet. Parading, who will go to the Hollywood Gold Cup off his win in the Dixie Stakes last weekend at Pimlico, will be considered for the Arlington Million, as will Dancing Forever.

* The featured ninth race here Friday is only an Illinois-bred entry-level turf allowance, but the race is competitive and potentially bettable. The pick to win is Ava Mae, whose off-the-turf overnight stakes flop on May 2 should be overlooked. But she could be tested by Bougainville, Kindred Heart, and Lucky Gal.