Giant Oak finally dodges tough luck, named winner of rugged Clark Handicap

LOUISVILLE — Throughout most of his career, Giant Oak has been the master at finding trouble on the racetrack and putting himself smack in the middle of it.

Whether it was a bobble at the start, an ill-timed bumped or a horrifically wide trip, there seemed to be no end to the number of issues keeping the flashy chestnut colt out of the winner's circle for more than a year.

"He's a hard-luck horse. He tries so hard and he gets so close but he never gets there," said Virginia Tarra, who owns and bred the son of Giant's Causeway along with her husband, Rudy.

On Friday during an incident-plagued edition of the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, Giant Oak finally kept himself out of the fray and was able to benefit from others' misfortune.

In a race that featured a jockey's objection, a stewards inquiry and two disqualifications, Giant Oak was elevated to first place on the disqualification of Successful Dan to earn the first graded stakes win of his career in a roughly run $564,000 Clark Handicap.

The 136th running of the 11⁄8-mile Clark will go down as one of the most heated in the race's illustrious history.

As the 11-horse field settled in for the drive at the head of the lane, 9-to-5 favorite Successful Dan appeared to come out sharply under jockey Julien Leparoux and knock initial third-place finisher Redding Colliery off stride.

Although Successful Dan fended off Giant Oak to his outside with a determined run and crossed the wire a head in front, he was taken down by the stewards after a review that lasted about 15 minutes and placed third behind Redding Colliery, who was moved up to second.

Demarcation, who hit the wire in fourth, was also disqualified and placed last for interference at the head of the lane with stablemate Dubious Miss, who was placed 10th.

"It was a terrible call," lamented Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Successful Dan, who came into the race off a win in the Grade II Fayette Stakes at Keeneland. "I mean, up in there in the stretch that horse (Demarcation) came over on us and knocked us into the other horse. After that, we're clearly the winner."

Chief state steward John Veitch said he and fellow stewards saw no evidence of any horse pushing Successful Dan out.

"We did discern the No. 3 (Successful Dan) was in the pocket, had nowhere to go and consequently bulled his way out and interfered with the No. 5 (Redding Colliery)," Veitch said.

For one of the rare times in his 23-race career, none of the drama on the track included Giant Oak.

Following a promising juvenile season that saw him win two of four starts, Giant Oak triumphed just once in nine starts last year when he took the Arlington Classic Stakes on the turf last May.

Since that time, the 4-year-old colt had lost 14 straight races and was most recently fourth in the Breeders' Cup Marathon on Nov. 5.

Though he hadn't previously won over the track, Giant Oak always did put in good runs on the Churchill strip, including a fourth-place effort in last year's Clark. After Regal Ransom carved out a half in :48.92 on Friday, Giant Oak was able to unleash his late kick on the far outside under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.

"This has been a long time coming," beamed Chris Block, trainer of Giant Oak. "This horse has had a rough, rough go of it. He's had some rough trips but we've always known he loved Churchill Downs.

"I felt good about today. I felt if the pace was solid, he'd come with his run. To be honest, I saw (Redding Colliery) come out but I thought he came out on his own. It is ironic that it finished up like this."

Final time for the race was 1:50.82 over a fast track.

When the tote board finally flashed Giant Oak's number in the top spot, the explosion of emotion that came from his camp echoed throughout Churchill Downs.

"Mr. and Mrs. Tarra. ... I give them a lot of credit for sticking with this horse," Block said. "We've had a lot of frustrating conversations, but today it's sweet to get this one."