OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Fresh off an authoritative 4 Â¾-length score in the Grade 3 Jerome, El Kabeir is back for more in the 135th edition of the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers for 3-year-olds on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Withers - the second leg of the New York Racing Association's lead up to the Grade 1, $1 million TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial on April 4 at the Big A - offers 10 points to the winner as part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" qualifying system. By virtue of his victory in the Jerome and the 2014 Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club, and a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Champagne, El Kabeir currently leads all 3-year-olds with 21 points.
Trained by John Terranova for Zayat Stables, El Kabeir has taken a decidedly different direction than many of his more lightly raced peers - he has run six times since his debut on August 14 at Saratoga Race Course, with no layoff lines showing in his past performances.
Despite his rigorous schedule, El Kabeir has thrived, showing marked improvement along the Beyer Speed Figure scale with each start, which culminated in a career-best Beyer of 95 for his Jerome triumph.
"We're just going off how he's responding," said Terranova. "If he doesn't run well or doesn't come out of a race well, we'd space out his races, but we're taking it one race at a time. We're blessed to have a sound horse that's been doing very well with the workload he's taken on."
Beyond metrics, El Kabeir signaled he is an improving horse by showing a new dimension in the Jerome - rallying from off the pace. His prior two wins had both come on the lead.
"Physically he's getting stronger, but he's also maturing mentally," said Terranova. "He rated off the pace [in the Jerome] and he relaxed beautifully. Earlier in his career, he wouldn't do that, but he just needed to grow up. Based on his performance to date and the way he's gone forward, I expect a big effort from him. He's a determined racehorse, both mentally and physically focused."
El Kabeir, who boasts a robust record of 3-1-1 with earnings of $388,892, will be ridden by C. C. Lopez from outermost post 7. The Terranova trainee is listed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite.
The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Classy Class will be making only his third career start in the Withers, but is the 2-1 second choice on the morning line.
Owned by Cheyenne Stables, the son of Discreetly Mine made his debut in sensational fashion, blitzing a maiden field by four lengths on October 25 at Belmont Park. Stretching out from 6 Â½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, the bay colt made his next start in the Grade 2 Remsen on November 29 at Aqueduct, and acquitted himself well by finishing fourth after pressing the pace.
"We absolutely think he wants two turns," said McLaughlin's assistant, Arthur Magnuson. "[The Remsen] was only his second start; we went from 6 Â½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles - that's a lot to ask - and he ran very well. We were very pleased with his race. He was ready for the Jerome but we had a bit of an unlucky hiccup; we can't wait for the Withers. He's [still eligible for a non-winners of one], but he can run with this kind."
Irad Ortiz, Jr. will be aboard Classy Class from the rail.
A host of recent maiden-breakers are set to tackle El Kabeir and Classy Class, led by the Todd Pletcher-trained Far From Over. A son of Blame out of the A.P. Indy mare Alchemist, Far From Over made his debut a winning one, contesting the pace for much of the way before digging in grimly to prevail by a nose at one mile, 70 yards over the Big A's inner track on December 12.
Joining Far From Over as inner-track graduates are March and Tencendur. The former broke his maiden by a neck on January 11 for trainer Chad Brown and Robert LaPenta, while the latter prevailed by three-quarters of a length over a muddy track on January 19 for trainer George Weaver and Philip Birsh.
Unrivaled, a son of Super Saver trained by Marya Montoya, broke his maiden by 15 lengths at Parx Racing in his most recent start. The Waldorf Racing Stables color-bearer was claimed for $30,000 three starts ago.
Rounding out the field is General Bellamy, who finished third, beaten 12 Â½ lengths in the Jerome, for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and Bach Stables. Previously, the Bellamy Road colt broke his maiden by 3 Â½ lengths in an off-the-turf race at Aqueduct.