10/02/2008 11:00PM

Giant Oak taking key step up


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The last time Chris Block ventured from Chicago to the Keeneland fall meet with a turf horse with similarly gaudy form, Vacare remained undefeated by winning the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.

Two years later, it is probably a stretch for Giant Oak to follow in the hoofsteps of a mare who has earned more than $1 million, but Block is eager to see if the 2-year-old colt belongs with the elite of his division. A prime opportunity arises Sunday with the $200,000 Woodford Reserve Bourbon Stakes, a Win and You're In race toward the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

Giant Oak enters the Grade 3 Bourbon off two impressive wins at Arlington Park, leaving Block and others to wonder what his limitations might be.

"I'm hoping he'll take this step forward," said Block. "I think he's capable. In both races, he ran what I would term somewhat green, not really realizing what his job is."

Giant Oak, with Edgar Prado to ride, drew post 2 as part of a full field of 12 entered in the Bourbon, which goes at 1 1/16 miles on the turf as the seventh of 10 Sunday races. Drawn to his inside and next to the rail is Bittel Road, the probable favorite who also is unbeaten in two starts.

Bittel Road, with John Velazquez in from New York to ride for trainer Todd Pletcher, is the lone stakes winner in the field, having posted a narrow victory as the favorite in the Aug. 29 With Anticipation at Saratoga. Pletcher recently passed on the Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont Park for Bittel Road because of soft turf conditions. In stark contrast, the Keeneland turf course is very firm following weeks of drought in the central Kentucky region.

Other contenders in the 18th running of the Bourbon include Har D Boy and Dynamic Force, both entered off impressive maiden triumphs; Ghost Five, a two-time winner at the recently ended Monmouth Park meet; and Appalachian Trail, third in the Cradle Stakes at River Downs.

The Bourbon, known as the Hopemont until 2003, was won last fall by Gio Ponti, who this summer won the Virginia Derby.