The finish came just in time as El Kabeir posted a wire-to-wire decision in Saturday's Grade 2,$233,000 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Imperia was bearing down on his rival with one final surge, but El Kabeir held the runner-up safe by a head on the finish line.
Fourth in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park and second in the Grade 2 Nashua at Aqueduct on November 2, El Kabeir registered his first stakes win and earned 10 points in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series race.
The Zayat Stables colorbearer flashed speed from post 4, opening a clear lead through splits of :23 3/5, :47 2/5 and 1:12 2/5 with Calvin Borel. Imperia rated in midpack down the backstretch and rallied into contention on the far turn, but he was still two lengths back in second with a sixteenth of a mile remaining as El Kabeir continued to grimly hold the advantage.
It got very interesting late as Imperia just missed in the final stride.
El Kabeir, a gray son of Scat Daddy trained by John Terranova, completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 4/5 and paid $16.60 to win as the 7-1 third choice among 11 two-year-olds.
"He came out of the last race a little tired so I went easy with him the first couple of weeks, and we actually missed a work coming in here and I knew we were coming in a little on the short side. I got one good work into him since then," Terranova admitted. "He ran on a real deep and tiring track that day in the Nashua and ran into a real strong head wind up the backstretch and got a little keen with (jockey) Irad (Ortiz Jr.) up the backstretch with the blinkers on first time so I pulled those right off.
"I went easy for the first couple of weeks because he was a little tired after that last race. He was a lighter colt and he's put on weight and looked good so I got a good work in him the other day so I decided to ship him down here to see how he handled the two turns.
"We just thought we'd ship to see how he shipped, first time going on the road," the horseman added about sending El Kabeir to Kentucky instead of staying in New York for the Remsen. "He's a real talented colt. He's just a little bit trying to find his balance.
"It (handling the surface) was great and he handled himself well in the paddock. He shipped in great and wanted to get over this surface and we wanted to get the two turns."
"We were kind of on the fence about coming to this race. We talked to John all week and debating back and forth, and we said 'Why not take a shot?' We knew he was a little short but he had the talent to do it," remarked Justin Zayat, son of owner Ahmed Zayat. "It was more fitness-wise than it was distance. Calvin came off and said he was kind of looking around at the shadows and everything so he's kind of a little green still. He's just a baby and is still learning."
"I had never been on the colt, and he got in about five days ago," Borel said. "We took him to the gate, stood him, and took the blinkers off of him and that was (Terranova's) idea to get him to relax. As a matter of fact I was out here watching him and everything and he did everything was perfect and it was just a matter of getting the distance and getting him to relax. We did our job; we got him to relax and we we've got to keep going forward. I was feeling very good."
At the finish I knew it was getting tight because he had never been this far and the track is a little heavy. With everything put together it was a matter of who could out grind the other one. I think he did. It was the first time going this far. Truly, after this race it'll tighten him up real good."
Imperia, a turf stakes winner and the 5-2 second choice, turned in a fine performance in his first dirt attempt for Kiaran McLaughlin. It was another three parts of a length back to 8-1 Eagle in third, and 7-5 favorite Lord Nelson wound up fifth.
"One more jump and he had it, but he ran great and we're tickled with the way he ran," McLaughlin praised his charge. "We belong with the three-year-olds moving forward to the first Saturday in May."
El Kabeir captured his second start by 10 lengths over maiden special weight rivals at Saratoga and has now earned $268,892 from a 5-2-1-1 line. The colt was bred in Florida by Rustlewood Farm Inc. and sold for $250,000 at the 2013 OBS August sale.
El Kabeir is out of the unraced Unbridled's Song mare Great Venue, a half-sister to a trio of stakes winners, including multiple Grade 2 hero Too Much Bling.