Unlike Long Island's human residents, El Kabeir enjoyed the winter. While the other leading 3-year-olds were sunning themselves in Florida, Louisiana and California, the rangy gray colt was thriving for trainer John Terranova II at frigid, snowy Belmont Park.
"He's really matured, developmentally and physically," said Terranova, 44, who was born in Syosset and still lives there. "He's muscled out in his neck and hindquarters, and we haven't had a hiccup so far. He keeps finding more every time."
Terranova finished last of 19 with Falling Sky in 2013 in his only trip to the Kentucky Derby, and El Kabeir is a strong candidate to take him back. The Gotham winner is the 3-1 third choice in a field of seven for Saturday's $1-million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, his final tuneup for the May 2 Derby.
Besides the Wood, NBC Sports Network will showcase two other Grade I, 11/8-mile Derby preps from 5-7 p.m. Carpe Diem (Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland) and undefeated Dortmund (Santa Anita Derby) will be heavily favored to validate their star status.
Seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, who could send a record six horses to the Derby, trains Carpe Diem. He also has Daredevil, the Wood's 9-5 favorite. Dortmund runs for Bob Baffert, winner of three Derbys. If Pletcher or Baffert trained El Kabeir, he'd be creating a lot more buzz, and even if he wins the Wood, he'll fly into Louisville under the radar.
There are questions about how far El Kabeir wants to go, because his sire, Scat Daddy, isn't known for producing stayers. Yet there's a lot to like about him, especially his experience and adaptability. The Wood will be his ninth start, and among the top 10 Derby contenders, only Louisiana Derby winner International Star has that many.
Unlike most of the top 3-year-olds, El Kabeir doesn't need the lead. He also has a stakes win at Churchill Downs, the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club last Nov. 29, when he and Calvin Borel crushed International Star by 5¾ lengths.
"He's been battle-tested and won from different places -- on the lead, stalking and closing," Terranova said. "When the gates open, we can use his versatility and see how the race unfolds. That's a nice advantage for us to have. We love to have that dimension. I'm going to leave it up to C.C."
C.C. is 54-year-old Chuck C. Lopez, who in a 36-year career has no Grade I trophy among more than 4,000 wins. When Borel's sister-in-law died shortly before the Jan. 3 Jerome Stakes, Lopez picked up the mount on El Kabeir, and they're 2-for-3. Lopez never has competed in the Derby.
"We're pleased with everything," Terranova said, "and there was no real question about changing riders."