LOUISVILLE, KY -- In the chilly twilight at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, two horses circled before the winner's circle. Successful Dan, technical victor in the $564,000 Clark Handicap, was dirt-speckled and restless. His tongue worked the bit in frustration at the unusual delay. Giant Oak, who hadn't won since May 23 of 2009, tossed his head and pulled at the leadshank. The objection sign flashed on and on.
"He was obviously the winner," trainer Charles Lopresti said of his colt Successful Dan, up a neck over the late-closing Giant Oak.
But the stewards ruled otherwise, handing down two disqualifications after a lengthy inquiry that lasted more than 15 minutes. In a roughly-run 136th edition of the track's prestigious handicap finale, it was a 4-year-old Illinois-bred who visited the winner's circle for the first time this year.
Giant Oak is a hard-luck horse whose recent past performances read more like a recipe for disaster than a lead-up to Grade 1 victory. Checked, boxed, bobbled, swung out wide -- this year, it seemed like everything imaginable happened to impede the colt's access to the winner's circle. Sometimes trainer Chris Block and owners Rudy and Virginia Tarra could barely believe their misfortune. But they never gave up hope.
"It's like he tries so hard, and he gets so close, but he just never gets there," Virgina Tarra said at Churchill Downs, after her 4-year-old homebred was placed first in Saturday's Grade 1 event through the disqualification of technical winner Successful Dan. "But we always had faith in him and knew he was going to break through one of these days."
The colt's connections recognized how ironic it was that he would benefit from another's misfortune to finally gain the prestigious score he'd been seeking for multiple seasons.
"It's been a long time coming," Block said. "This poor horse has had a rough, rough go of it -- some tough trips. But he guts it all out every time he runs -- and the thing about this horse that's amazing is that he's stayed healthy, danced every dance we've asked him to dance, and come back to tackle the next one."
A look at Giant Oak's chart provides testament to that fact. Last time out on Nov. 5 he was fifth after racing too far back and going wide in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. He bobbled at the break and finished second by three-quarters of a length in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, missed again in the Washington Park Handicap because he went wide on four turns and got carried out late, and ran fifth in the Arlington Handicap when he split horses three wide and was bumped at the three-sixteenths pole.
"There's no telling how much talent this horse has," jockey Shaun Bridgmohan remarked. "I always (told) Chris, one of these days he's going to show up -- and it just happened to be in a Grade One today."
The son of Giant's Causeway got a clean trip in the Clark, and his five-wide move down the center of the track enabled him to avoid the veritable pinball effect as Successful Dan bulled his way out of a pocket to bump Redding Colliery near the three-sixteenths pole, which resulted in a jockeys' inquiry. At the same time, Demarcation veered in and bumped with Dubious Miss, causing a stewards' inquiry. In the wake of two disqualifications, Successful Dan and jockey Julien Leparoux were placed third and Demarcation, who ran fourth under Kent Desormeaux, was placed last.
Leparoux said he would review films of the race to dissect his disastrous trip. "I just got slammed all over," he said.
Desormeaux said his mount lost momentum at the three-sixteenths pole and that was what caused the check.
Regardless of the disqualifications, Block said the resulting finish was even sweeter because of who Giant Oak technically missed passing.
"Successful Dan, to me, was the horse to beat," he remarked.
And from the Clark a victor emerges whose name will be familiar in 2011 as well. Giant Oak will winter in Ocala, where he will prep for next season's campaign at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.
"He's coming back next year, no doubt about it," the trainer remarked. "He's the kind of horse we always thought would get better with age."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.