05/08/2015 3:52PM

Derby owner-breeder: Zayats finally end Derby frustrations

Barbara D. Livingston
After a string of seconds, owner Ahmed Zayat finally won the Kentucky Derby with his homebred American Pharoah.

Pioneerof the Nile, carrying Zayat Stables’s turquoise and gold colors to the lead in upper stretch of the Kentucky Derby until Mine That Bird, covered in mud, scoots by on the rail.

Nehro, striking the lead briefly but relegated to battling on for second as Animal Kingdom surges down the center of the Churchill Downs track.
Bodemeister, spurting clear to extend his lead to three lengths in upper stretch before I’ll Have Another collars him nearing the finish line in the shadow of the Twin Spires.

American Pharoah, swinging wide and forging his way to a narrow lead, with Firing Line battling back to give him the toughest challenge of his young career.

“I was looking at [my wife, Joanne],” said owner Ahmed Zayat, 52. “And I was looking at this particular picture. And Pharoah is a freak of nature. And, for the first time, I’m seeing him right now working, working hard. And I knew that, if he had the lead, nobody will catch him. He has such brilliant speed. I start getting really, really nervous. And my wife starts crying.”

This time, however, the ending belonged to the Zayats. Homebred champion American Pharoah – who had delivered his own dose of heartbreak last fall when injury forced him to miss the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – ended the family’s streak of frustration in America’s most famed race, surging clear late to capture the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on May 2 at Churchill Downs.

“Like, literally, in seconds that emotion went from somebody who is crying out of fear that they’re going to take it again from us, to actually, you have done it,” said Zayat, who also had a runner who finished 13th in the race with Mr. Z. “Tears of joy. It was like a euphoria of emotions. I still cannot believe it. I don’t even know who finished second or third. I’m asking, ‘Who got second? Who got third?’ ”

Racing has been a family affair for Ahmed Zayat, wife Joanne, and children Ashley, Emma, Justin, and Benjamin. The emotion of the milestone victory physically overwhelmed Justin Zayat, 23, racing and stallion manager for the operation.

“I was so emotional,” Justin Zayat said. “After the race I started throwing up because I was full of emotions. I didn’t know what was going through [my mind] – is this a dream right now?”

Ahmed Zayat, an entrepreneur from Cairo, Egypt, who now lives in Teaneck, N.J., previously watched his Pioneerof the Nile (2009), Nehro (2011), and Bodemeister (2012) finish second in the Derby – and that’s not all. In 2010, he arrived at Churchill Downs with Grade 1 winner Eskendereya, the likely favorite, but the colt had to be withdrawn from consideration the week of the classic with a career-ending injury.

This year, Zayat Stables arrived at Churchill Downs with three contenders: American Pharoah, the 2014 Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old male and winner of three Grade 1 events, including a romp in the Arkansas Derby in his final prep; three-time graded stakes winner El Kabeir; and seven-time graded stakes-placed Mr. Z. The Derby frustration reared its head again when El Kabeir had to be scratched the day before the race with a foot bruise. But the horse the family had waited for was still ready to run for the roses.

That waiting came literally, as American Pharoah is the result of a long Zayat tapestry. Ahmed Zayat purchased a Yankee Gentleman filly for $250,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale, and named her for his youngest daughter. Some years later, he bred her to his homebred Grade 1 winner Pioneerof the Nile, then in his second year at stud.

“Pioneerof the Nile is a hell of a stallion,” Ahmed Zayat said of the Empire Maker horse who now stands at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. “And how spoiled and lucky can you get? We talk about running second, but here’s the first horse I’ve ever bred. … So this particular sire has been very kind to us. It doesn’t get any better when American Pharoah’s dam [Littleprincessemma] is also named after my little daughter, Princess Emma. It is Zayat luck from A to Z. And this makes it very pleasing.”

American Pharoah could easily have become another tale of “the one that got away” for Zayat. The owner mainly breeds to race but entered the colt in the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale at the urging of Taylor Made Farm, which prepped him. However, Zayat wasn’t going to let him go unless he got the right price.

“Taylor Made said this horse is an absolute standout on the farm, and they know that we breed to race, but maybe we should consider putting him in the sale because it will help [market Pioneerof the Nile],” Zayat said. “Somebody’s watching for us, I have to tell you, because the horse, maybe four or five weeks before he goes to the sale, he hit himself in the stall, so he had kind of a bump on his ankle. And I think people looked and said, ‘The Zayats selling? They usually breed to race.’ And it kind of maybe scared some people. So he didn’t get the action that was expected.”

Zayat bought back young American Pharoah for $300,000, via bloodstock agent David Ingordo, and sent him to brothers J.B. and Kevin McKathan in Ocala, Fla., for his early training. It was the latest example of how the owner is willing to let his heart overrule business sense, rather than risk seller’s remorse. He withdrew Bodemeister from a two-year-olds in training sale in 2011, and Pioneerof the Nile was also a buyback.

“Business? This is passion,” Zayat said. “It’s all about passion. You’re in a game where you’re losing 75 percent of the time – if you’re batting 25 percent, you’re a hero. You have to be passionate to be able to go up and down like that because of emotions.”

Horses are a longtime passion for Zayat, who competed in national show-jumping events in his native Egypt before moving to the U.S. to earn a graduate degree at Boston University. He went on to found Al Ahram Beverages and become a major shareholder in Misr Glass Manufacturing. He eventually sold his beverage company to Heineken in 2002 for $280 million. He made the decision to sell, retiring at a fairly young age, because of another passion: family.

“I’ve traveled all my life in business, because my businesses were in Egypt,” Zayat said. “I commuted between Cairo and New York for 10 years nonstop. I kind of retired at a very young age, at 42. I traveled, and my kids were growing up, and I was coming home for the weekend because I didn’t want to be a father in absentee – still, I was only home for the weekend. When I retired, the horse was kind of the common bond that started to bring all of us together.”

He founded Zayat Stables in 2005, and in less than a decade has become a major player in the sport, despite several years marked by bankruptcy and a lawsuit with his bank. In addition to classic-placed Grade 1 winners Bodemeister, Paynter, and Pioneerof the Nile and Grade 1 winner Eskendereya, the stable’s top runners have included Grade 1 winners Point Ashley and Justin Phillip – named for his children – and additional Grade 1 winners A Z Warrior, Jaycito, Rightly So, Thorn Song, and Zensational.

Horses became a shared passion for the family, most notably for Justin Zayat. About to graduate from New York University, he serves as racing and stallion manager for the stable. He and his father spent a day Derby week visiting their stallions, mares, and foals in Lexington, Ky.

“It became a great bond for us,” Justin Zayat said. “All day we’re talking horses, me and him. Every single moment of the day we’re talking, we’re debating, we fight, we argue. But at the same time we kind of balance each other out and it causes us to make good business decisions at the end of the day.”

There is no question in the Zayat family about who is in charge and has the final say.

“For sure, he’s my boss,” Justin Zayat said. “He’s my boss, my mentor, everything to me.”

Another passion for the Zayats is getting fans involved in racing. Both Ahmed and Justin Zayat are active on social media, frequently posting photos and responding to fans’ comments and questions on Twitter. The stable also invites fans to submit names for its foals each season. American Pharoah’s name was chosen by Marsha Baumgartner of Barnett, Mo.

“We like getting fans involved in the sport, and on our website, they can submit to name any of our babies,” Ahmed Zayat said. “And a woman named Marsha named him, and we thought the name was so clever and so apropos to the sire, to us, to my heritage from Egypt.”

The letters in American Pharoah’s name are, of course, transposed from the traditional spelling of the word. But this colt who inspires such confidence and passion in his team has shown he can run – regardless of the lettering on his saddle towel.

“American Pharoah is very different from all the horses I had,” Ahmed Zayat said. “Day 1, we felt that he had brilliance to him: his demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved. Comparing him to all the others, I came with good horses. But I felt [this time], I came with a star. But I was very cautious of saying that because I wanted the horse to do the talking. It is not about what we feel. It is about the horse.”