The Aqueduct railbirds chanted "Chuckie! Chuckie!" as Chuck C. Lopez, his face spattered with mud, grinned and shook his whip. In a 36-year career with more than 4,000 victories, none felt as good as this one to the soft-spoken guy from Brooklyn.
Lopez, 54, never has ridden in the Kentucky Derby, and maybe El Kabeir finally can take him there. The rangy gray colt rallied to dominate the Grade III, $400,000 Gotham Stakes by 2¾ lengths Saturday on the inner track, where Lopez has spent so many winters riding cheap claimers.
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In a double change of pace, Lopez, known since the late '70s as a speed jock, came from far back on the 6-5 favorite, who usually is on or near the pace. "He broke good but broke better and showed more gas,'' Lopez said, "so we got shuffled back going into the turn. I just tried not to panic. I was on the best horse in the race.''
As Blame Jim and Toasting Master dueled to the top of the stretch, Lopez moved up on the inside. After angling out near the three-eighths pole, El Kabeir surged five-wide in midstretch and drew off. Tiz Shea D, in only his second start, was the runner-up, with Classy Class a head farther back.
El Kabeir ($4.60) ran 1 1/16 miles in the mud in 1:45.56 for his fourth win eight career starts for trainer John Terranova II. He earned $240,000, raising his bankroll to $678,892 for Zayat Stables, and guaranteed himself a spot in the Derby starting gate if he stays healthy and in good form.
"He overcame a lot today,'' Terranova said. "It was a big move forward. We'd seen that move in the mornings, but not with a field of horses in front of him and mud coming out of his eyes, nose and mouth.''
The oldest jockey to win a Derby was Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 in 1986 when he brought in long shot Ferdinand. C.C. would love to have a shot at equaling The Shoe's "old guy" record, but he's not getting ahead of himself.
"I definitely have the Derby dream, but I don't want to get my heart broken,'' Lopez said. "I'm not getting my hopes up. I've been thinking all along that there's a chance they may take me off him, so I ride every race like it's my last one on him. Even if I lost the mount, he's still the best horse I've ever been on."
The chilly wind and snowy infield made Derby Day feel a lot more than eight weeks away. Terranova said El Kabeir has thrived in Queens. "We'd like to stay here and run in the Wood Memorial [April 4], because he's done very well here,'' he said. "He ran through a wall today and kept going.''
Dortmund, Carpe Diem win preps. In another case of the rich getting richer, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher won the day's other Derby preps. Baffert's Dortmund ($3.60) improved to 5-for-5 by taking the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Pletcher's Carpe Diem ($4) made his 3-year-old debut a 5-length runaway in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Shared Belief wins Big 'Cap. Shared Belief ($2.60) collared Moreno on the turn and went on to win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap by 41/4 lengths. Mike Smith earned a record third consecutive Big 'Cap victory, having won the previous two years aboard Game On Dude. -- With AP