01/17/2016 10:32AM

American Pharoah, connections dominate Eclipse ceremony


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The Eclipse Awards on Saturday night at Gulfstream Park quite rightly turned into a celebration and coronation of American Pharoah, who unanimously was voted Horse of the Year and champion male 3-year-old, prompting owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat to call American Pharoah “the horse of a lifetime.”

That horse was responsible for five Eclipse Awards: two for himself, two for Zayat Stables – as owner and breeder – and one for trainer Bob Baffert, who said, “Every trainer dreams of having a horse like this.”

The connections of American Pharoah wore out the path from their table to the podium, but the multiple awards gave several members of the Zayat family a chance to speak, including Justin, Ahmed’s son and the stable’s racing manager, and Joanne – Ahmed’s wife and Justin’s mom – who closed the evening with a poised, heartfelt speech after Horse of the Year was announced.

“The Zayats are a close family,” Joanne Zayat said. “We win together, laugh together, cry together.”

She added, “This night has been amazing for us,” and called the journey with American Pharoah – the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner – “the trip of a lifetime.”

Ahmed Zayat had different reactions to the awards for breeder and owner.

“This is one award I never ever dreamt of winning,” Zayat said when accepting the breeding award, the first time he made his way to the stage Saturday night.

The owner award, though, clearly was one he had coveted for years, and finally it was in his grasp.

“What took so long?” he said. “This is the one I really wanted. I’m not going to be very humble about it.”

Zayat said he was “extremely proud” of what his stable had achieved in the decade he has owned horses, and it is an impressive resume, with multiple stakes winners and several near misses in Triple Crown races in the years preceding American Pharoah.

“American Pharoah is the jewel of the crown, but we are not a one-horse stable,” he said.

American Pharoah won seven of eight starts last year, his lone loss coming in the Travers. But that experience in Saratoga was so memorable that Justin Zayat said he “would do it all over again,” saying he was proud American Pharoah always competed in the biggest and most-important races.

Baffert joined the Zayats onstage for the presentations of Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male, in addition to picking up his fourth Eclipse Award as champion trainer.

Presenter Randy Moss of NBC Sports and Baffert won’t be running the read option anytime soon, though, as Baffert nearly dropped the trophy Moss gave him when Baffert was announced as champion trainer.

“That would have been bad,” Baffert said after catching the trophy before it hit the ground.

Baffert had one of the truly funny lines of the night when acknowledging the fine years that fellow trainer finalists Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher had in 2015.

“You guys were looking strong ’til June 6,” Baffert said, citing the date of the Belmont Stakes. “Sorry guys.”

Baffert generously and genuinely thanked all the members of his stable who combined to get the best out of American Pharoah, including exercise rider Jorge Alvarez and groom Eduardo “Lalo” Luna. Baffert said assistant Jim Barnes, who never left American Pharoah’s side through his extensive travel, “sacrificed so much time.”

He also acknowledged the key contributions of jockey Martin Garcia, who was American Pharoah’s regular rider for workouts, even though Victor Espinoza rode him in all his races in 2015.

“All he did was throw the keys to the Ferrari to Victor Espinoza for the weekend,” Baffert said.

The festivities took nearly three hours, a half-hour longer than budgeted, and included a lengthy but deserved tribute to owner-breeder Leonard Lavin, who was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit. His grandson, Craig Bernick, cited Glen Hill Farm’s multi-decade relationship with the Proctor family – who have trained and managed their runners – saying, “The Proctor family represents the highest integrity and old-school horsemanship.”

Beholder was another star of the evening, as she picked up her third Eclipse Award, this time for champion older dirt female, after winning divisional titles at ages 2 and 3. She is remaining in training this year at age 6.

Her trainer, Richard Mandella, said Beholder and American Pharoah are “two horses it’ll take crops to replace,” so rare are horses of that caliber.

“Being a trainer, I wake up every day thinking about that,” Mandella said. “It’s quite an honor.”

Beholder and Runhappy were the nominal finalists for Horse of the Year, along with American Pharoah, even though that result never was in doubt. But both Beholder and Runhappy secured divisional titles, with Runhappy being named champion male sprinter.

The drama surrounding that colt was in evidence by the acceptance speech of owner Jim McIngvale, who fired trainer Maria Borell the day after the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. McIngvale thanked his sister-in-law, Laura Wohlers – who always has managed the horse and currently is his trainer – and groom Cordell Anderson but never mentioned Borell, who has sued McIngvale, alleging she was not properly compensated during her employment.