April 03, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) Jockey C.C. Lopez doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself a month before the Kentucky Derby.

''I've been riding one race at a time,'' he says, ''with no pressure, no projections.''

So far, Lopez is enjoying the ride of a lifetime aboard El Kabeir.

At 54, and with more than 4,100 victories during a 36-year-career, the New York rider has a big shot at winning his first Grade 1 race in Saturday's $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack. Should that work out, it would be on to Churchill Downs and his first ride in the Derby.

''There's many things that can happen in horse racing, so I'm grateful to be where I am,'' says Lopez. ''I have a real chance to get that Grade 1 off my bucket list.''

Daredevil may be the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Wood, but third-choice El Kabeir has been loving the long, cold winter at the Big A. With Lopez aboard, El Kabeir won the Jerome after a stumble at the start, finished second in the Withers and came back and won the Gotham.

Lopez was a last-minute replacement for Calvin Borel in the Jerome. El Kabeir had won the Kentucky Jockey Club with Borel aboard, but the Hall of Famer was unable to ride in the Jerome and owner Zayat Stables wound up with Lopez.

''It came down to a few different riders that were available,'' El Kabeir's trainer John Terranova said earlier this week on a conference call. ''C.C. was available. He's been riding the inner track in New York through the winter at Aqueduct so we called him, and happy for everybody that it's worked out.''

When Derby time rolls around, owners have been known to make changes in order to have a rider with Triple Crown experience. That seems unlikely in Lopez's case.

''It's already been stated by the Zayat family that C.C. was going to retain the mount, especially in his last couple races,'' Terranova said. ''There was no real question about changing riders or changing anything at that point, and here we are and we're happy to have C.C. aboard.''

The Grade 3 Gotham victory on March 7 was probably the biggest win of his career. He waited patiently when El Kabeir dropped nearly 12 lengths off the lead before rallying to win by 2 3/4 lengths.

The victory put El Kabeir among the leading Derby contenders heading into the final big weekend of prep races. Lopez may not to want to look ahead, but if he should go on to win the Derby, he'd match Bill Shoemaker as the oldest jockey to take the Run for the Roses.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Daredevil, is quite familiar with Lopez. The seven-time Eclipse Award winning trainer says when a lesser-known rider winds up on a good horse, it's time to show he can handle the pressure of a top-flight race.

''He's a veteran, he's won a lot of races, he's a very talented jockey,'' Pletcher said. ''And I think he's getting the opportunity to display that when he found a quality mount like El Kabeir.''

Lopez is the son of a jockey, and his two sons are jockeys, too. He tried to play football when he was young, but once his father saw him get swarmed under by a bunch of defenders, he suggested horse racing. Lopez won his first race aboard Foolish Tracy in 1979 at what is now Parx in Bensalem, Pa., and has won jockey titles at the Meadowlands (1978, 2003) and Monmouth Park (1998).

He's never been among the leading riders in the country, or New York for that matter, but he remains one of the most popular riders on the circuit. He's won just seven times in 65 starts this year through April 1, according to Equibase, and is coming off a 15-day suspension for careless riding in December.

When he's not riding, he's working on vintage cars. Lopez said he's restored a 1962 Cadillac Fleetwood, and has an '85 El Dorado and a 1967 Grand Prix convertible.

After his riding days, he says he may just hang out in the garage and work on cars. For now, Lopez has a horse he wants to keep fined-tuned for a few more races.


The field for the Wood, from the rail out: Tiz Shea D (8-1), Toasting Master (20-1), Lieutenant Colonel (15-1), Frosted (5-2), El Kabeir (3-1), Daredevil (9-5) and Tencendur (12-1).


Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/rosenblattap

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