05/06/2011 12:22PM

Kentucky Derby: Zayat knows the ups and downs


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - No one would deny that winning the Kentucky Derby is difficult, in particular owner Ahmed Zayat, who has quickly learned that when it comes to America's best-known race, it's prudent to expect the unexpected.

KENTUCKY DERBY DAY: Past performances, contender profiles, and video

Two years ago, his colt Pioneerof the Nile ran the race of his life, but all it did was get him second to the improbable winner, Mine That Bird.

Last year, he had the acknowledged favorite for the race, Eskendereya, but Eskendereya had to be withdrawn a week before the race because of an injury, and subsequently was retired.

This year, Zayat thought his best chance was with Jaycito, but recurring foot problems have prevented that colt from making it to Churchill Downs for Saturday's 137th Derby.

Instead, Zayat's hopes for a first Derby win rest this year with Nehro, who did not even win a race until Feb. 21, but whose stock has climbed with subsequent runner-up efforts in the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby.

"It's a roller coaster, peaks and valleys," Zayat, 48, said while walking through the stable area of Churchill Downs earlier this week.

And so it has been for Zayat, both on and off the track, in matters that are intertwined personally, professionally, and internationally. Zayat, long dogged by cash-flow rumors at the track, in the past two years had a bitter fight with Kentucky's Fifth Third Bank, a matter that ended up in bankruptcy court, and whose denouement was a judgment in Zayat's favor.

Zayat also has watched the events in the Mideast, particularly in his native Egypt, with keen interest. Zayat, the chairman of Egypt-based Al Ahran Beverages before the company was sold to Heineken International three years ago, is friends with Hosni Mubarak, who recently resigned as the president of Egypt, yet Zayat says he found the transition in his country this spring "breathtaking, aspirational."

"I'm very proud of what happened," he said in a recent interview. "It was unplanned. The young kids are very aspirational. They want things everyone aspires for. But I know Mubarak pretty well. He served my country for 64 years."

Zayat is one of the most fascinating people in racing. He holds master's degrees from Boston University and Harvard. Though born in Egypt, he is Jewish, and is so observant that during Passover, for instance, there were days he would not return calls, owing to religious custom. He is a passionate racing fan, not just as an owner, but as a bettor. Four summers ago, after a dustup with Del Mar management over its installation of Polytrack, Zayat took his horses out of there, but Del Mar's management was equally concerned about him leaving the area and not putting his money through the windows.

Married with a wife and four children, Zayat's interest in racing has rubbed off on his family, particularly his oldest son, Justin, who has been at his father's side in the stable area this week. In addition to being at the Derby, they were heading over to Lexington this week to visit Eskenderaya, Pioneerof the Nile, and Zensational, former runners who are standing at stud in Kentucky.

Zayat also is diligent about trying to place horses who can no longer compete at the track. "They can be jumpers, or donated," he said. "We try to find them a respectable home."

Zayat currently has approximately 125 horses, 55 of whom are in training with the likes of Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Nehro's trainer, Steve Asmussen. He has reduced the size of his horse business in recent years, the result, he said, of the economy and his fight with Fifth Third Bank.
"It cost me $3 million in legal fees," Zayat said. "A lot of people wouldn't have had the money to fight. It wasn't very pleasant. The judge ruled for us in every instance. I could have taken a haircut, 50 percent or less. The judge said, 'I commend you. I've never seen a bankruptcy where everyone is getting paid.' "

Zayat purchased Nehro, a son of Mineshaft, for $170,000 as a yearling. He named the colt for the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is also the father of Indira Gandhi. The name Nehru was already taken for a now 4-year-old gelding by Mingun, so Zayat submitted the name Nehro to the Jockey Club as a backup.

Nehro did not make his debut until December, when he finished fourth in a maiden race at Fair Grounds. Taken to Oaklawn, he ran poorly in a maiden race on Jan. 15, which Asmussen has said was largely because of being unable to train properly on that track during that wintry month.
Since then, though, Nehro has blossomed. He rallied strongly from well back to beat maidens at Oaklawn on Feb. 21, jumped into the Louisiana Derby and finished second to Pants On Fire March 26, then closed furiously to be second to Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby April 16.

"He's had the best preps," Zayat said. "Inside, outside, in traffic, near the pace, off the pace. He had a great turn of foot in Arkansas. He galloped out like he will like a mile and a quarter. It is asking a lot to have three races in six weeks, but if you look at him, you wouldn't know."