11/15/2011 4:11PM

Hawthorne: Block barn proves national force

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Never Retreat, with Julien Leparoux up, wins the First Lady at Keeneland.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Chris Block already has put together an excellent 2011 season. Stable earnings of more than $3.2 million represent a career-best, as do Block’s eight victories in graded stakes. And the last six weeks of 2011 could bring more of the same.

Giant Oak and Mister Marti Gras, both based at Hawthorne, are scheduled to ship to Churchill Downs for the Grade 1, $500,000 Clark Handicap on Nov. 25. The same afternoon in California, the Block-trained Never Retreat will make what is expected to be the final start of her career in the Grade 1, $250,000 Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park, an appearance that could have championship implications.

Never Retreat has raced 10 times during a campaign that began Jan. 9 at Gulfstream Park. She has won five races: The Grade 2 Honey Fox over one mile at Gulfstream; the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley over 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland; the Grade 2 Dance Smartly over 1 1/8 miles at Woodbine; the Grade 2 Canadian, another nine-furlong Woodbine race; and the Grade 1 First Lady over one mile at Keeneland. In the Canadian, Never Retreat defeated Perfect Shirl, who came back to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and in the First Lady she soundly beat Together, who was back one week later to win the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup over talented Marketing Mix.

Division leader Stacelita’s résumé includes a third to males in the Grade 1 United Nations and wins in the Grade 1 Beverly D. (where Never Retreat finished seventh) and the Grade 1 Flower Bowl. Since Stacelita finished 10th in the BC Filly and Mare Turf, another Grade 1 win in the Matriarch at least puts Never Retreat in the Eclipse Award conversation.

“I think it’s possible,” said Block, who trains Never Retreat for his family’s racing partnership, Team Block. “It certainly weighed into our decision to go to the Matriarch.”

Four-year-old Mister Marti Gras has wins on wet and dry dirt, Polytrack, and turf in 2011, and he comes off a good closing score in the Grade 3 Ack Ack on Nov. 4 at Churchill. Block said Mister Marti Gras, owned by Bob Lothenbach, could go to Fair Grounds for the winter or get time off following the Clark.

Block confirmed that owners Rudy and Virginia Tarra will campaign 5-year-old Giant Oak in 2012. Giant Oak began 2011 winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap but has lost his last seven starts. He looked like a potential winner of the BC Marathon in midstretch but flattened out to finish third.

“He just was too aggressive early,” said Block.

Giant Oak will race in the Clark for the third year in a row. He finished fourth behind Blame in 2009 and was placed first via disqualification in the race’s 2010 edition.