Stephen Foster preview: Giant Oak shedding loser's label

In the years that Giant Oak has resided in his barn, trainer Chris Block has had to do a lot of explaining on the chestnut horse's behalf.

For much of that time, Block tried to come up with answers as to why the now 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway had such trouble finding the winner's circle.

In what has been a remarkable turnaround, Block now finds himself fielding queries as to whether the formerly hard-luck horse can become a leader of the handicap division.

Just as the 3-year-old class is still seeking a clear leader following the Triple Crown, the older male division is equally as scattered heading into the second half of 2011.

Saturday's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs presents a huge opportunity for Giant Oak and some of his 10 rivals. A win in the 11⁄8-mile race could carry even more weight in a thus far parity-filled year.

Should Giant Oak manage to take the $500,000-added Stephen Foster, the 7-to-2 morning-line favorite would be the first older male to register two Grade I wins on a main track this season. He opened his year with a win in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 5.

Considering this is the same horse who lost 14 consecutive races before winning the Grade I Clark Handicap via disqualification at Churchill last November, Block is thrilled Virginia Tarra's homebred has gotten himself into such a lofty discussion.

"Certainly it's a wide-open picture in the older horse division," Block said. "I think this race is definitely a test for our horse to see if he ranks right there with this group. I think he does, and I think he'll prove that Saturday.

"I think this is a race where the horses who are successful here will be the horses to look at as we go forward in the summer and fall campaigns."

Though he heads into Saturday off back-to-back losses in the Grade III Alysheba Stakes and the Grade II New Orleans Handicap, Giant Oak is a more focused horse than the one who ran fourth in the Stephen Foster to eventual champion Blame last June.

Giant Oak had gotten himself in trouble during his races because of his late-closing style and lack of killer instinct needed to sustain a winning run.

Instead of blowing past his rivals, he seemed content to just hang out. It's something jockey Shaun Bridgmohan relayed to Block last season, and in turn, they have adjusted his strategies.

"He's the kind of horse where he has a tendency to want to play around," Block said. "If you keep him at the task at hand and not let him get sidled up next to a horse in a race, then he keeps his focus and his ability can come forward."

That plan worked to perfection at Gulfstream Park when Giant Oak captured the 11⁄8-mile Donn by 2 lengths. It was the single most impressive outing he had posted and proved to Block his mentality was finally catching up to his strong physique.

"That was the most satisfying win I've had with that horse, no question," Block said. "It was all on his terms and he did it the way I was always hoping he could. He was aggressive from the word go and when Shaun asked him to go, he was intent and did what he was supposed to do."

Maturity has also been a key factor for fellow Stephen Foster contender and graded stakes winner Apart.

Owned and bred by Adele Dilschneider — who also co-owned Blame — Apart has been a promising but sometimes spotty performer for trainer Al Stall Jr.

The 4-year-old son of Flatter looked like the heir to his former stablemate Blame when he won the Grade II Super Derby and Grade III Ack Ack Stakes last year, but then he lost four straight before taking the Grade III William Donald Schaefer Memorial Stakes at Pimlico on May 21.

"He's got some ability, but we're not exactly sure what level he is at," Stall said. "His pedigree and his physical say he's going to get better with age and hopefully that is going on right now."

Mission Impazible defeated both Apart and Giant Oak in winning the New Orleans Handicap, but he was seventh last time out in the Grade III Alysheba. The son of Unbridled's Song is expected to be forwardly placed in the Stephen Foster and is another who could take a huge jump in stature with a win Saturday.

"It is wide open but I don't worry about stuff like (divisional rankings)," Stall said. "We just try to take care of our horse and have him earn his way through every race."

The Stephen Foster is one of four graded stakes on Saturday's Churchill card along with the Grade III Matt Winn for 3-year-olds going 11⁄16 miles on the main track, and the Grade III Regret and Grade III Jefferson Cup, both on the turf.