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Apr 17, 2015

Up the Backstretch: Lopez hanging on by a hair

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

 Philadelphia, PA ( - Whatever the percentage is of jockeys who ever ride in the Kentucky Derby versus the total jockey population, it must be a small one.

Many veteran jockeys never get the opportunity to ride in the the most famous race in the world. Fewer even get to ride a legitimate contender in the race.

In the Mid-Alantic region, one of the best known jockeys is Charles C. Lopez, better known as C.C. Lopez. He's been a fixture in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York for years, but has never had a mount in the Kentucky Derby.

Lopez has been riding El Kabeir this season, booting home the horse to victories at Aqueduct in the Jerome and Gotham Stakes along with a second in the Withers and third in the Wood Memorial. He picked up the mount when Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel's sister-in-law died.

Although El Kabeir has those two wins, a second and a third with Lopez riding, the colt's connections are not yet set on having the 54-year-old jockey ride in the Run for the Roses.

"We are still mulling on the decision day by day," said Justin Zayat, son of El Kabier's owner Ahmed Zayat. "There's no decision based on the jockey right now. You know, we have opinions coming from all sources. John (trainer John Terranva) is telling us that he is leaning towards a change. Personally myself I am leaning towards a change. My dad is in the middle. He doesn't know what he wants. You know, his heart is telling him we've got to - we should keep C. C., but my brain is telling me I'd have to change him.

"You know, he's a 54-year-old jockey going to the Derby who has never ridden in it before. You either have an experienced rider who's gone to the Derby before, who has been in a 20-horse field, who has handled the pressure, but there's a lot that goes into it. You know, and C.C. has known that from day one that it was just a race-to-race commitment. You could also recall that he was the substitute rider for Calvin Borel, who was supposed to ride the horse in the Jerome, who was flying in that day, but he had a death in his family so he couldn't make it. So C.C. at the time was a replacement jockey on the horse."

Lopez, while not winning the better known stakes, has entered winner's circles following victories up and down the Eastern seaboard.

"We were taking a risk by racing with him," Justin Zayat continues. "You know, we also lost on him at the Withers at 1-5 and people were telling us you must take C.C. off now; how could he deal with Classy Class on the lead going that fast for the whole entire race, and we stuck with C.C. because we believed he was an experienced rider at Aqueduct, and that was the key that led us to riding C.C. in the first place. Now we're going out of Aqueduct, so he hasn't really ridden at Churchill Downs a lot, so there's a concern about this and being able to adapt to the track there. So that's where we stand right now."

Don't forget the adage, "Don't change horses in mid-stream."

"We have been one of C.C.'s biggest supporters through the years. If you look at his last graded stake winner before El Kabeir, then you have I think 2010 or 2009 with our own filly Heart Ashley. We believe in C.C. as a jockey, it's just that I believe right now for the biggest race of our career it's about the horse. It's not about the jockey right now. It's about what is best for El Kabeir and what's best to win the Kentucky Derby."

It would be a shame for Lopez not to get the chance to ride in the biggest event in all of thoroughbred racing. He's won more than 3,500 races in over 35 years in the saddle. Lopez has the experience to not be overwhelmed by the spectacle of the Kentucky Derby.

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