10/05/2011 2:18PM

Hawthorne Gold Cup: Giant Oak draws far outside in post 10

Four-Footed Fotos
The 5-year-old Giant Oak will remain in training for another season in 2012.

STICKNEY, Ill. – The Sport of Kings typically is more business than sport. Lower-level owners sell prospects for big bucks. Young horses are rushed off to a stud career that will generate more money than racing.

Rudy and Virginia Tarra already rejected the former path, turning down seven-figure offers for Giant Oak in 2008 and 2009, and now they are on the cusp of backing away from the latter, with plans to race 5-year-old Giant Oak again in 2012 rather than sell him as a Kentucky stallion.

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“I hate like hell turning him out and turning him into a stallion right now,” said Rudy Tarra. “It’s not the most lucrative thing to do, but that’s what the game is all about, to get a horse that can compete at the higher levels.”

The Tarras, who live in Chicagoland, have so far seen Giant Oak race in person only once this year, but their stable star is set for a local appearance Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. Wednesday’s post position draw hardly treated Giant Oak like a hometown favorite: He landed the outside stall in a 10-horse field. But the wide post doesn’t figure to hurt Giant Oak. The Gold Cup is a 1 1/4-mile race starting at the head of the homestretch, and Giant Oak will do his racing from well off the pace and can simply drop back and look for position before the first turn. With regular rider Shaun Bridgmohan injured, Jesus Castanon rides Giant Oak for the first time.

Giant Oak may go off as the Gold Cup’s second choice, with Todd Pletcher-trained Rule, who drew post 3 and projects as the Gold Cup’s main speed, the possible favorite. Cornhusker Handicap winner Headache should receive betting support, and Giant Oak’s trainer, Chris Block, also starts Washington Park winner Mister Marti Gras (post 9). Maristar (post 7), the 4-year-old filly who might have won the Washington Park but for stretch traffic, also is among the entrants. The rest of the field, from inside out, is Worldly, Moe Man, Cherokee Lord, Cease, and Where’s Sterling.

The Tarras bred Giant Oak, mating Giant’s Causeway with their multiple graded-stakes winning mare Crafty Oak. With pedigree and a powerful physical presence, Giant Oak became a desirable commodity after he finished second by a neck in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes late in 2008, but the Tarras turned down purchase offers and kept Giant Oak to race.

At first, that decision looked poor. Giant Oak finished fifth and fourth in two 2009 Kentucky Derby trials at Fair Grounds, and though he was second in the Illinois Derby, his connections passed the Triple Crown and switched to turf. Giant Oak won the Arlington Classic in May 2009, but proceeded to lose 14 races in a row.

Near the end of that losing streak, Giant Oak started showing spark, rallying strongly to finish a close second in the 2010 Hawthorne Gold Cup, and after a fifth-place finish as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, Giant Oak was placed first in the Grade 1 Clark when Successful Dan was disqualified. Then, in February, Giant Oak delivered a powerful closing kick to win the Grade 1 Donn Handicap by two lengths in what looked like a breakthrough performance.

“Oh yeah, we thought he was on the way to some major improvement then,” said Rudy Tarra, who watched the race from his home.

Instead, Giant Oak returned to his old ways, launching decent rallies that began too late and ended too soon: His four post-Donn starts produced two thirds and two fifths. The Donn, not coincidentally, was the last time Giant Oak got in a race with a strong pace both early and middle, and as a one-run closer who prefers rallying outside horses, Giant Oak is at the mercy of circumstances.

“After the Donn, of course, as a guy who’s directly involved with the horse, you’re like ‘Whoa – he’s big time,’ ” said trainer Chris Block. “But I knew it was a perfect setup for him. The fractions were quick, and those two horses he ran down [Morning Line and Rule] I thought with a quick pace would falter. He hasn’t had a perfect setup since. It takes that kind of a pace, that kind of a set-up for him.”

Still, Giant Oak has earned more than $1.4 million in purses while staying sound and racing in top-class races across the eastern half of the country, success that has drawn the Tarras’ three sons more deeply into the sport. But while Rudy Tarra has no regrets over not selling, he hopes that any future high-class horse he owns possesses a more versatile running style.

“What I learned from this horse is I never want a true come-from-behind horse again,” he said. “You can have the best horse in the race and something will happen that you can’t predict, and everything goes to pot. That’s how he is, but he always tries, he brings his best effort. No matter what happens you can’t get mad at him.”