Each April as the snow melts away, the ground warms and the tulips bloom, sports fans look to Queens, hoping to get an early glimpse at a future champion in a tradition that dates from 1925.
There at the Aqueduct, Thoroughbreds are led from the paddock to the main track, loaded into a starting gate positioned on the front stretch and launched on a mile-and-an-eighth run in the Wood Memorial Stakes, the biggest preparatory race in New York for the Triple Crown.
Winning the Wood Memorial will get a horse’s name and the colors of his jockey’s silks immortalized on the wall inside the Aqueduct grandstand and will earn 100 points toward one of the 20 coveted spots in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, contested at Churchill Downs in Louisville this year on May 2.
In all, 11 winners of the Wood Memorial Stakes have gone on to win “the Run for the Roses,” while four Wood Memorial winners — Gallant Fox in 1930, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Seattle Slew in 1977 — have gone on to win the Triple Crown, being first under the wire in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
But what of that greatest of racehorses, Secretariat? He ran in the 1973 edition of the Wood Memorial — coupled with stable-mate, Angle Light, and bothered by a sore inside his mouth.
“The race was a disaster,” wrote Secretariat’s biographer, William Nack, in a piece for Sports Illustrated shortly after the super-horse was euthanized due to laminitis in 1989. “(Jockey Ron) Turcotte held the colt back early, but when he tried to get Secretariat to pick up the bit and run, he got no response. I could see at the far turn that the horse was dead. He never made a race of it, struggling to finish third, beaten by four lengths by his own stable-mate, Angle Light, and by Sham.”
Secretariat, of course, went on to capture the Triple Crown, winning the Preakness at Pimlico and then the Belmont, where he lengthened his lead from the backstretch to the far turn, moving, as CBS announcer Chic Anderson says, like a tremendous machine, to pass under the wire 31 lengths in front of his nearest competitor, besting Belmont Park’s record for a mile-and-a-half route by two- and three-fifths seconds.
Still, the path for those who aspire to Secretariat-like greatness passes through the Wood Memorial. It’s been 14 years since Fusaichi Pegasus captured both the Memorial and the Derby, but El Kabeir, a roan colt by Salt Daddy out of Great Venue, is looking to do just that, running in the Wood Memorial April 4 after winning the March 7 Gotham Stakes by two and three-quarters lengths.
In the Gotham, El Kabeir came from off the pace — he was in ninth place after one-quarter of a mile — to sweep ahead down the stretch under jockey C.C. Lopez and beat Tiz Shea D and Classy Class.
“I was very impressed, visually,” says John Terranova, who trains the colt for Zayat Stables. “The way the race unfolded, he showed a whole new dimension. A lot was thrown at him yesterday and he made two big moves. It was very impressive. We’re real proud of him.”
Since his debut last summer at Saratoga, El Kabeir has been able to score in two graded stakes races, the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and the Jerome Stakes, and finished second in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 7.
“He’s a tough, strong horse. He’s got a great constitution,” says Terranova in a piece on the New York Racing Association’s website. “We’ve got a tremendous foundation under him now, and I think the winter has toughened him up even more. We’ll see how things go, but he seems to love [racing]. Every race he’s gotten stronger.”
After winning the Gotham Stakes, El Kabeir sat atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby point standings, which gives the colt and Lopez a chance for horse racing immortality.
Lopez could become the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby if El Kabeir delivers a victory at Churchill Downs. At 54 years, eight months and 28 days old, he’ll be 14 days older than Bill Shoemaker was when he rode Ferdinand to victory in the Derby in 1986.
According to Lopez, El Kabeir’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, has guaranteed him the mount and a shot at the first Grade 1 stakes victory of his long riding career that has included more than 3,500 career wins.
“He says, ‘You don’t have to worry about that no more. You ride him, win, lose or draw,’ and I thanked him, because he’s probably got 40 riders wanting to get aboard now, and sometimes people are influenced,” Lopez told the New York Racing Association’s website. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have El Kabeir, Mr. Zayat and my wife in my life, for getting me to where I am now.”
For more on the Wood Memorial Stakes and the other prep races for the Kentucky Derby, visit kentuckyderby.com/road.