LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For a Grade 3 event, Friday's $300,000 Alysheba came up a pretty tough spot. Anybody who doesn't agree with that assessment need only ask trainer Chris Block, who will send out the likely favorite, two-time Grade 1 winner Giant Oak.
"The race certainly came up pretty salty," said Block. "I think the added money, raising the purse to $300,000, changed a lot of people's minds and made it a tougher race."
Giant Oak tops a field of 11 horses entered for the 1 1/16-mile Alysheba, which last year had a purse of $150,000. Caracortado is cross-entered in Saturday's Grade 1 Woodford Reserve.
The remainder of the lineup includes Grade 1 winner Awesome Gem; two-time Grade 2 winner Mission Impazible; Grade 3 winners Wise Dan and Demarcation; multiple New York-bred stakes winner Icabad Crane; Grade 2 winner Regal Ransom; the 2010 Preakness runner-up and Belmont third-place finisher, First Dude; stakes winner Jardim; and Equestrio, who defeated stablemate and likely Kentucky Derby favorite Dialed In earlier this winter at Gulfstream Park.
Giant Oak returns to the scene of his first Grade 1 win, which came last fall in the Clark Handicap, a race in which he was beaten a head but ultimately placed first following the disqualification of Successful Dan. Giant Oak won a second Grade 1 outright 10 weeks later when rallying to a convincing victory over Morning Line in Gulfstream's Donn Handicap.
"The Clark was one of the highlights of my career," said Block. "He'd been a hard-luck horse and had had a lot of bad trips, some that he made for himself. But he really threw in a big run off the turn that day against what was a group of really good horses, and at the eighth pole I thought he was going to win the thing. But he does have a tendency to hang a little bit when he gets to the leaders. I was real proud of him that day – win, lose, or draw."
Giant Oak will be trying to avenge his most recent setback, at the hands of Mission Impazible in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.
"He does not look as comfortable over that track as he is at Churchill Downs or Gulfstream, but I thought he gave a good effort and it sets him up perfectly for this race, which sets us up nicely for the Stephen Foster," said Block. "He is a horse reliant on a solid pace and on form, at least, there looks to be a lot of pace in this race."
The pace in the Alysheba figures to come from Regal Ransom, First Dude, and Mission Impazible, who survived an early battle on the front end to register a 1 1/2-length victory over Apart in the New Orleans Handicap. Mission Impazible has trained well for his first start at Churchill Downs since finishing ninth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
Regal Ransom led for nearly a mile before fading to finish ninth in the Clark. He has made one start since, finishing a close second to Grade 1 winner Capt. Candyman Can going 6 1/2 furlongs in an overnight handicap at Gulfstream on April 3.
First Dude returns to Churchill Downs for the first time since finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic last November. Transferred to trainer Bob Baffert's barn earlier this winter, First Dude exits just his second career victory, which came in an entry-level allowance race last month at Santa Anita.
Awesome Gem seeks his first victory since capturing the Hollywood Gold Cap in July 2010. He wheels back Friday on less than three weeks' rest off a sixth-place finish in the $1 million Charles Town Classic.