Before you read another syllable, be advised that we are in the first full week of January and many things can and will happen before the 141st Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is run in about 115 days.
But with that caveat in mind, an early 2015 performance by Zayat Stableâ€™s El Kabeir in last weekendâ€™s Grade II $200,000 Jerome Stakes at New Yorkâ€™s Aqueduct provided evidence that the winner of Novemberâ€™s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs has already improved in the six weeks since that race was run.
Readers of the most recent installment of this column may recall that that the writerâ€™s listing of his top 10 Kentucky Derby 141 included trainer John Terranovaâ€™s colt near the bottom of that list and behind both Imperia and Eagle, the horses that finished second and third, respectively, in the exciting finish in the race at Churchill Downs.
Nothing has changed in that assessment: I still believe Imperia, one of a basketful of Derby hopefuls trained by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, and Eagle, conditioned by longtime Churchill Downs trainer Neil Howard, have a better upside and more potential for success on the first Saturday in May.
The level of quality in his competition in the Jerome is unclear, but the impressive part of El Kabeirâ€™s win was the way he accomplished that task. After skipping to a front-running victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club, El Kabeir bobbled just after the start in the Jerome and ran wide around the first turn. But he settled patiently just off the leaders, moved to the lead near the head of the stretch and drew off under jockey C.C. Lopez to win by 4 Â¾ lengths in the mile-and-70-yard contest.
His problems in the Jerome were relatively minor, but El Kabeir did display maturity and a level of versatility that was not readily evident in his victory at Churchill Downs.
â€œI was riding the best horse in the race. I just bided my time, and when I was ready, I pushed the accelerator and he went,â€ Lopez said after the race. â€œI just stayed outside of trouble. That’s what you’re supposed to do on the best horse â€“ you don’t get in any more trouble than you have to. He ran away from them.â€
Thereâ€™s a new star next to El Kabeirâ€™s name on my evolving list of contenders for the 2015 Derby. The Jerome win has left me far more interested in his ongoing development than on the final weekend of November when he had everything his way in his win at Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Jockey Club most recently produced a Kentucky Derby winner in WinStar Farmâ€™s Super Saver, winner of the 2010 Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher. Real Quiet, the 1997 Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up, won the Derby the following spring for owner Mike Pegram and trainer Bob Baffert.
El Kabeirâ€™s Jerome victory raised his point total to 21 and the lead on the â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ system that will determine the eligibility of the 20 horses that will make up the maximum field of 20 that will compete in the May 2 â€œRun for the Roses.â€
Behind him on the RTTKD Leaderboard are Claiborne Breedersâ€™ Futurity winner Carpe Diem (14), Sentient Jet Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red (12), International Star (11) and a logjam of seven 3-year-olds at 10 points that includes Ocho Ocho Ocho, Mr. Z, American Pharoah, Daredevil, Dortmund, Leave the Light On and Lucky Player.
The early days of 2015 delivered sad news on two fronts in the deaths of veteran trainer Ronnier Warren and Debbie Borel, the wife of retired trainer Cecil Borel and sister-in-law of three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.
Warren, who lived most recently in Hot Springs, Arkansas, died on Dec. 31 after suffering a brain aneurysm. The 79-year-old Warren, a true Thoroughbred racing character known for wearing a black cowboy hat and for climbing into the saddle to gallop his horses, had a knack for getting his horses primed for big efforts on important days.
He saddled Elmer Millerâ€™s Coax Me Chad, a little-respected member of the mutuel field, for a runner-up finish behind Claiborne Farmâ€™s Swale in the 1984 Kentucky Derby. He won Keenelandâ€™s 1984 Alcibiades with Millerâ€™s Foxy Deen, who returned $222.60 for a $2 win wager. Foxy Deen finished second to Franâ€™s Valentine at odds of 43-1 in the Kentucky Oaks the following spring.
Warren also saddled Withholding to win Churchill Downsâ€™ Clark Handicap.
Debbie Borel died on New Yearâ€™s Day and funeral services were held on Jan. 4. In recent racing meets, she worked as a claims clerk in the racing office at Churchill Downs, where her husband stabled his horses until he announced his retirement last year. Debbie retired from that job following the 2014 Spring Meet at the Louisville track.