03/24/2011 5:18PM

New Orleans Handicap: Giant Oak looks for elusive Fair Grounds victory

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NEW ORLEANS – Based on his sharp score in the Donn Handicap in his last start, Giant Oak is the morning-line favorite in the Grade  2, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap for older horses Saturday at Fair Grounds. But his trainer, Chris Block, admits to a few reservations over the one glaring hole in Giant Oak’s résumé, one that handicappers will have to ponder long and hard before backing him. He has never won here and has only finished in the money once in four tries.

“It is a concern,” Block said Thursday morning from Hawthorne, where he was overseeing his string there. “But what we looked at is that the Stephen Foster in June is our midterm goal, and the Alysheba at Churchill Downs is the perfect prep. We could have run in the Oaklawn Handicap, but that would put us inside of 30 days to the Alysheba, and if we skipped the Alysheba and waited for the Foster, that would be 10 weeks.

“We could have run in the Skip Away next week at Gulfstream, but this is more money, a Grade 2, and has a long stretch run. Timing wise, the New Orleans Handicap made the most sense. I know he hasn’t done his best there, but I think he’s got legitimate excuses in three of the four races and I think he’s a different horse now.”

To be sure, Giant Oak is coming off two excellent efforts. The Donn was his 2011 debut and followed Giant Oak’s victory, via disqualification, in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs to end his 2010 campaign. In both his last two starts, Giant Oak was ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan.

“Shaun seems to get a lot of run out of him,” Block said.

As with the Clark and the Donn, the New Orleans Handicap is at 1  1/8 miles. Giant Oak got a hot pace to set up his late run in the Donn but might not get the same scenario this time.

Mission Impazible and Birdrun are the logical front-runners. Mission Impazible was second to Demarcation last month in the Mineshaft Handicap, the local prep for the New Orleans Handicap, and won the Louisiana Derby here a year ago. Birdrun disappointed last time out in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park, but won two straight prior to that.

“He stumbled a little leaving the gate,” said Bill Mott, who trains Birdrun.

The Mineshaft was the 2011 debut for Demarcation, who was given a rest after a rough stretch run in the Clark.

“We freshened him, and that seemed to really help,” said Paul McGee, who trains Demarcation. “He had a pretty strong campaign last year. He’s consistent. He throws some big races. And he really likes that track.”

Demarcation has won 10 times in 37 starts, has finished in the money 23 times, and is 3 for 6 at Fair Grounds.

Apart was third in the Mineshaft last time out behind Demarcation and Mission Impazible.