11/29/2010 3:25PM

Some uncharted territory for Block

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Giant Oak (left), who was placed first in last fall's Clark Handicap, will return to Churchill Downs for the Alysheba Stakes.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Chris Block has horses entered in a $15,000 maiden-claimer and a $25,000 claiming race Thursday at Hawthorne, a typical winter-racing day in Chicago, with the temperature forecast to stay below freezing and the racing below allowance-class. His operation based year-round in Illinois, Block has experienced plenty of late-fall days like this.

What Block never had experienced was the success he suddenly found Thanksgiving week at Churchill Downs. On Thursday, Block sent out Illinois-bred Dundalk Dust to win the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap, and a day later, Illinois-bred Giant Oak was elevated via disqualification from second to first in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap.

Before Thursday, the 43-year-old Block, training for 21 years, had won only one stakes race – the 2006 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup – rated higher than Grade 3.

Giant Oak came into the Clark winless on the year and regarded as a Grade 1 horse by few, while Dundalk Dust had proven only that she could beat decent Illinois-bred foes. The filly was a 6-1 shot in her race, the colt an 11-1 outsider. Not many years ago, Block might not have sent either horse from Hawthorne to Churchill.

“Probably I wouldn’t have,” Block conceded, adding that at times he might have been “conservative to a fault.”

But Block this year has made hay down Interstate 65 in Louisville. In the spring, he won the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap with Free Fighter, and already at Churchill’s fall meet he had captured the Grade 3 Cardinal Handicap on Nov. 7 with Askbut I Won’ttell.

“I went down there really relaxed about both horses,” Block said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Dundalk Dust made her first five starts on Polytrack or turf, but during fall 2009 she had trained better on Hawthorne dirt than on any other surface before mildly injuring an ankle. Knowing that, Block had long targeted the Oct. 30 Illini Princess at Hawthorne, a dirt-route, and when Dundalk Dust won with speed to spare, Block went for one final 2010 start, choosing the Falls City over the Regret, a 3-year-old filly turf race, and quashing the idea of scratching Dundalk Dust when Churchill’s track came up sloppy.

Meanwhile, Giant Oak finally won a big race – even if he needed help from stewards – taking home a $328,700 check for owner-breeders Rudy and Virginia Tarra, Chicagoans who turned down big money for Giant Oak two winters ago. Giant Oak now is less than $50,000 away from becoming a millionaire, but he still has not crossed the finish line first in 16 starts, a streak dating to the Arlington Classic in May 2009.

“I was so proud of him, but I was also kind of ticked at him, too,” Block said. “He rolled right up to [disqualified winner] Successful Dan and then he raises his head and starts leaning, playing that game. I don’t know how to change that. I’ve fiddled with the blinkers and the bridle, I’ve changed riders. It’s going to be his nemesis going forward, if he keeps doing it. He’s such a pleasure to be around, but he can be such a knucklehead, too.”

Both Giant Oak and Dundalk Dust are headed to Graceful Oaks Farm in Florida for a period of light training and rest, Block said, and both will return to race in 2011.