09/04/2010 7:22PM

Gran Estreno continues to pay huge dividends for Stidham

Doug Clark/Fourfootedfotos
Gran Estreno, under Michael Baze, wins the Washington Park Handicap for the second straight year.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Gran Estreno became the fifth horse to win two editions of the Washington Park Handicap, and fourth to win the 77-year-old race two years in a row with a half-length victory over Giant Oak on Saturday at Arlington Park.

Gran Estreno, a 7-year-old Argentine-bred horse, is a claim that just keeps on giving. The Chicago ownership group named Feel the Thunder Stable and trainer Mike Stidham haltered Gran Estreno for a $20,000 price tag on May 1, 2009 at Arlington. With the $60,000 winner’s share of the Grade 3 Washington Park purse, Gran Estreno has banked $311,754 for Feel the Thunder.

“This would rate right at the top of my best claims,” trainer Mike Stidham said.

Because he was bred in Argentina and not made eligible to the Breeders’ Cup, Gran Estreno didn’t race for $50,000 in Breeders’ Cup bonus purse money in the Washington Park. His connections also would have to put up a six-figure entry fee to claim the spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that Gran Estreno earned winning the Washington Park, a Breeders ‘ Cup Challenge Win and You’re In event.

Gran Estreno had won just once in eight starts following his front-running victory in the 2009 Washington Park, but Stidham didn’t believe Gran Estreno had lost his best form this season.

“I didn’t question it,” said Stidham. “There have been circumstances. He’s been training just the same.”

Bumped at the start Saturday, Gran Estreno was nowhere near the early lead in this year’s Washington Park, with Mad Flatter setting splits of 24.71 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 48.63 for the first half while clear of Country Flavor. Gran Estreno and jockey Mike Baze were last of five down the backstretch, but Baze said he was able to creep into contention without having to expend much of his mount’s energy. With Mad Flatter tiring in the stretch, Baze attempted to guide Gran Estreno outside the pacesetter, but he was held in by jockey Junior Alvarado aboard wide-rallying Giant Oak. When Mad Flatter drifted outward past the eighth pole – much to Alvarado’s dismay - Baze stopped trying to turn right and went left, down to the fence.

“I turned him in and he shot right through there,” said Baze, Arlington’s leading rider.

Gran Estreno paid $10.60 to win, and was timed in 1:56.88 for 1 3/16 miles on Polytrack. Giant Oak, the 3-2 favorite, finished a neck in front of Mad Flatter, followed by Elusive Beat and Country Flavor. Coolcullen Times and Cure for Sale were scratched.