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Grade 1 stakes winner Giant Oak died last week at Millennium Farm in Lexington. The towering son of Giant’s Causeway came to Saratoga in 2011 where he immediately became a favorite of The Saratoga Special and anyone standing at the Morning Line kitchen as the big chestnut trained every morning.

The Special’s Sean Clancy wrote a column about Giant Oak and his right-hand man, Arthur Coontz that appeared in the July 27, 2011 issue and it’s this week’s Throwback Thursday.

 

Road Masters

By Sean Clancy

Just a man and his horse. Traveling the world.

Drew Coontz and Giant Oak have been together for nearly three years, the Thoroughbred version of Lewis and Clark.

Keeneland to Churchill Downs to Fair Grounds to Hawthorne. Arlington to Hoosier to Churchill back to Fair Grounds. To Keeneland to Arlington and back to Churchill. Arlington over to Hawthorne to Churchill. Gulfstream Park to Fair Grounds to Churchill. And finally Saratoga.

“That stake at Keeneland was my first race with him, been with him ever since,” Coontz said. “We’ve been all over.”

A week ago, Coontz bedded down Giant Oak in the end stall of Jimmy Toner’s barn. A horse, a man, two brush boxes and a mission – the Whitney Handicap Aug. 6.

When they began, Giant Oak was a burgeoning 2-year-old with wins on the turf and Polytrack at his home track of Arlington. Now, he’s 5 (Coontz is 25) with five wins, five seconds, four thirds and more than $1.3 million in earnings.

Coontz and Giant Oak are cut from the same cloth or more like chiseled from the same rock. Big, tough, Illinois-bred pillars enjoying Saratoga.

“Just me and the clown,” Coontz said while grazing the massive chestnut Tuesday morning.

About an hour earlier, Giant Oak exited the main track like a gorilla. Coontz grabbed the chin strap of his bridle and tried to drop anchor on him. He would have nothing of it, bucking and sidestepping past Rick Violette’s barn, goofing off and enjoying the fracas he was creating. Coontz never flinched, steady as if he was plowing a field.

“You never know what he’s going to do. He went around the track like a puppy dog and then he comes off the track like that, there’s no stopping him, his mind is made up, ‘I’ve done what I have to do, now I’m going to showboat,’ ” Coontz said. “Look he’s docile now, but boom he might be as high as that building. He was putting on a show. He was doing what he does best. He shows off the best, running is the second best thing he does.”

Pretty good second.

Trained by Chris Block and owned by the Virginia Tarra Trust, Giant Oak dabbled on the Triple Crown Trail back in 2009, finishing fifth in the Risen Star, fourth in the Louisiana Derby and second in the Illinois Derby before winning the Arlington Classic Stakes in May 2009. The son of Giant’s Causeway then lost 14 in a row while trying everything from the Indiana Derby to the Breeders’ Cup Marathon. He won the Grade 1 Clark to end last year and the Grade 1 Donn to begin this year before finishing third in the New Orleans Handicap, fifth in the Alysheba and fifth in the Stephen Foster June 18.

Coontz has traveled every mile with him.

From Springfield, Illinois, Coontz learned the game from his grandfather and father, competing at Fairmount Park and Ellis Park through the ’90s, becoming an owner when his dad gave him their last horse.

“I was raised in it, on and off the track with my dad as a kid,” Coontz said. “When I turned 16, Dad said, ‘I’m done. I’m signing him over to you.’ ”

Dad got out and son got in, making $39,000 with that horse in about three years, eventually losing him for $5,000 in 2004.

Coontz graduated college, took a year off and came to Block looking for a job at Arlington Park. He told him his history (lifer) and his objective (trainer).

“Well, we’ll probably put you on the end of a shank and keep you turning left,” Block said. “With your knowledge, it won’t be too long and you’ll be rubbing.”

By summer, Coontz was grooming three horses at Arlington Park. By fall, he was on the road with Giant Oak and 18-time winner Fort Prado. The latter finished in 2009 while Giant Oak continues to swing his axe.

“This is my fourth year with him and I’ve been on the road for three,” Coontz said. “I’ve traveled with other horses but it’s like I always come back to him. I’d like to see him retire and be successful as a stud but it will be hard to see him go. You get attached to ones like him.”

With that, Giant Oak followed Coontz to another barn, another stall on another road trip.