By Robert Criscola, the Blood-Horse
Zayat Stables’ El Kabeir is a striking gray 3-year-old who stands out in a post parade, as do the vibrant blue and yellow polka-dot silks of his owners. But those unfamiliar with the racing product in New York may not recognize the man atop the horse—C.C. Lopez, one of the most well-liked members of the jockey colony at Aqueduct Racetrack.
“Chuckie,” as he is known, is 54 years old and a 36-year veteran in the irons. He got his start at Keystone Racetrack (now Parx), and vividly recalls his first winner there.
“It was January 16, 1979,” Lopez said on a recent winter afternoon. “It was freezing, but this was before anyone knew what wind chill was! Her name was Foolish Tracy; it was a $4,000 claiming race. Doug Thomas was inside, Tony Block was next then (me and) Foolish Tracy was on the outside lugging in. I tried to steer her but never could switch sticks.”
But Lopez did get the win and the “initiation” that came with it.
“(The jockeys) got together whatever they could, shaving cream, mustard, you name it. John D’Augusto actually bit me on the butt… it was blue for a month!”
Over 4,000 wins later, Lopez is still going strong. He’s known as a speed rider, but has a different opinion of himself.
“I’ve been branded a speed rider, but not by choice,” said Lopez, “I can do it from off the pace, too. I don’t get in my horses’ way.”
Lopez’ agent, Nick Soulis, agrees.
“Lots of guys hold their mounts back, but C.C. lets them do their thing,” he said.
Lopez’ philosophy is evident in the way he has ridden El Kabeir in the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) and the Withers (gr. III) at Aqueduct. El Kabeir, whose Arabic name translates to “the boss,” managed to wire the field in the Jerome. In the Withers, however, he stalked Classy Class, who showed speed at the rail. El Kabeir did eventually pass Classy Class in the stretch but they were both run down late by Far From Over.
When asked if he could have ridden El Kabeir differently and possibly won the Withers, Lopez said, “I don’t think so. (Classy Class) wasn’t getting away with an easy lead… if I didn’t press he could’ve beat us all.”
Even though Lopez seems to fit this horse like a glove, he was not the original rider for El Kabeir. Joel Rosario was aboard the colt in his debut for trainer John Terranova II at Saratoga, and Irad Ortiz took over for three races including a fourth in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park and a runner-up finish in the Nashua (gr. II) at Aqueduct. Then El Kabeir went on to Churchill Downs and won the Kentucky Jockey Cup (gr. II) with Calvin Borel aboard.
Borel was supposed to make the trip to Aqueduct for the Jerome. However, Soulis noted, “The mount opened up because Calvin had a death in the family. I have a strong history with John Terranova; I had Jose Espinoza’s book at Tampa and he rode for him, won three stakes races for him, so John’s always been one of my biggest supporters.”
Lopez realizes how lucky he was to get the mount on such a horse. With 25 points, the colt ranks fourth on the leaderboard for the road to the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“I want to thank the Zayat family for choosing me,” he said. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up because its horse racing and anything can happen, but from the bottom of my heart I want to thank them for sticking with me.”
Lopez has already developed a great rapport with the Florida-bred son of Scat Daddy, who has become very special at this point in his career.
“He’s versatile,” Lopez said, “not one-sided at all. He’s got good speed, though. He’s still in the learning stages but he’s learning fast.
“One of my biggest challenges now is competing with guys half my age and staying relevant. This is why El Kabeir is so important: he can revive my career.”
Lopez has ridden in only the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), missing the money on two occasions with Cryp Too in 1997 and Hey Byrn in 2008. But with El Kabeir on target for the March 7 Gotham Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct, he’s taking one step closer to a run for the roses.
“Hopefully if things go well in the Gotham and the Wood (Memorial), C.C. will keep the mount in May,” Soulis remarked.
“Getting to the Kentucky Derby would be a nice feather in my cap,” Lopez said.
Outside of the racetrack, Lopez is a family man with varied interests.
“My first love was space, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Lopez recalled, “I love Star Trek—Captain Kirk is my idol. I remember waking up at 5:00 a.m. to watch Star Trek before I went to the track with my dad.”
Lopez’s father, Carlos Lopez, was also a jockey. C.C. remembers the day where he committed himself to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I was really good at football in school,” Lopez said, “and one day my dad came to watch me play. I was a fullback so I ran the ball and got tackled by four or five guys (on one play). After that my father said ‘If you want to be a jockey, no more of that.’ And that was the last game of football I ever played.”
Lopez is the father of three sons; the oldest is a police officer in New Jersey while his two younger sons have also become professional riders. David Charles Lopez currently rides at Golden Gate Fields and Erick Lopez plies his trade at Turf Paradise.
Lopez also has a passion for vintage cars.
“I restored a ’62 (Cadillac) Fleetwood from the ground up,” Lopez said, “I also have an ’85 (Cadillac) Eldorado and a ’67 (Pontiac) Grand Prix convertible, which was the only year they made it.”
Many jockeys stay in the racing business after their riding careers are over, and Lopez might do the same—or perhaps he’ll chose a different path.
“I could become a motorhead, buy and sell cars,” he said, “but if I got the right job (in the horse racing business) I’d stick around.”