LOUISVILLE — Few know better than Zayat Stables that one can never have too many good 2-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Already positioned in the catbird seat for 2015 with multiple Grade I winner American Pharoah and hard-knocking graded stakes performer Mr. Z, owner Ahmed Zayat can now add a colt with a two-turn, graded stakes win over the Churchill Downs surface to his stacked deck of classic hopefuls for next spring.
Justin Zayat joked he was fairly sure the screams coming from his father's New Jersey home could be heard in Louisville as their gray colt El Kabeir shot to the lead out of post 5 and had enough class to hold off Imperia by a head to win the Grade II, $233,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Saturday evening.
The 11⁄16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club was the co-feature along with the Grade II, $230,400 Golden Rod Stakes for 2-year-old fillies of Churchill Downs' "Stars of Tomorrow II" card featuring all juvenile races.
In breaking his maiden second time out by 103/4 lengths going 7 furlongs at Saratoga on Aug. 30, El Kabeir earned the "star quality" label within trainer John Terranova's shedrow. Following a runner-up effort in the Grade II Nashua Stakes on Nov. 2, Terranova backed off the son of Scat Daddy and was admittedly concerned that fitness would be as much an obstacle as the colt's 10 challengers in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
"He came out of his last race kind of tired, so I went easy on him and actually missed a work coming in here," Terranova said. "We knew we were coming in on the short side with him. He ran on a deep tiring track in the Nashua and he got a little keen with the blinkers on that day, so we took those off.
"We decided to ship him down here and see how he handles the two turns. He's a real talented colt, he's just trying to find his balance."
The Zayats were thinking El Kabeir had Breeders' Cup potential after his impressive maiden triumph, but backed off that notion when he was fourth, beaten 173/4 lengths over a sloppy track in the Grade I Champagne Stakes.
With three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel in the irons for the first time in the colt's five career starts, El Kabeir relaxed on an uncontested lead in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, clicking off fractions of :23.62 and :47.50 after 7-5 favorite Lord Nelson bobbled at the start.
"He did everything perfect, it was just a matter of getting the distance," said Borel, who won the Kentucky Jockey Club for a fourth time. "With everything put together it was a matter of who could out grind the other one."
Imperia indeed made a big charge after sitting seventh early on to bring some drama to the final strides, finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of third-place runner Eagle. As El Kabeir crossed the wire in 1:44.82 over a fast track, the Zayats — who have owned three Kentucky Derby runners-up — celebrated their current well of standouts.
"American Pharoah, to me, is kind of in a class of his own," said Justin Zayat, racing manager for his father's Zayat Stables. "But Mr. Z is closing very hard on him and El Kabeir can be right there. It's getting hard to separate them. This horse, we debated back and forth (whether to run) and said why not take a shot? He's a little short (in fitness) but he's got the talent to do it."
West Coast Belle takes Golden Rod
Owners Gary and Mary West have reason to toy with a potential Kentucky Oaks trip next spring as their homebred filly West Coast Belle won the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes by 11/4 lengths to remain unbeaten in three career starts.
Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who won last year's Golden Rod aboard Vexed, had a push-button mount carrying him in the 11⁄16-mile test as West Coast Belle sat fifth down the backside in an outside path through a half-mile in :47.50.
The Wayne Catalano trainee and daughter of leading sire Tapit surged up to grab the lead at the eighth pole and then turned back a late challenge by No Fault of Mine to win in a final time of 1:45.52.
"Well, you think about (the Oaks) but it's a little too early to think about too hard," Gary West said. "There are a lot of things that go on between here and there, and we've had a lot of good horses at this point in time and we ended up with a lot of heartbreaks along the trail. It's just a matter of keeping her sound and healthy."