01/18/2016 3:40PM

Zayat family reflects on ‘horse of a lifetime' at Eclipse Awards

Ahmed Zayat (center) celebrates with his family after winning Eclipse Awards as the top breeder and owner of 2015 on Saturday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The Eclipse Awards on Saturday night at Gulfstream Park quite rightly turned into a celebration and coronation for American Pharoah, who was unanimously voted Horse of the Year and champion male 3-year-old, prompting his owner and 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, was clearly 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 résumé, 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 a second-place finish in the Travers. But that experience at Saratoga was so memorable that Justin Zayat said he “would do it all over again,” saying that he was proud that American Pharoah always competed in the biggest and most important races.

Baffert joined the Zayats on stage 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 fumbled the trophy Moss gave him when Baffert was announced as champion trainer.

“That would have been bad,” Baffert said after recovering the trophy unscathed.

Baffert had one of the truly funny lines of the night while acknowledging the fine years that fellow trainer finalists Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher had in 2015. “You guys were looking strong till 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 of 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 and 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 – which has trained and managed Glen Hill’s 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 was never in doubt. But both Beholder and Runhappy did secure 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.

Frank More than 1 year ago
the worse pathetic bunch of people in horse racing -- remember Nehro!
Frank Reach More than 1 year ago
Frank, you truly have no idea what you are talking about. First off the Zayat family bred and campaigned American Pharoah to amazing accomplishments. Also, they put their love and MONEY up in a sport needing enthusiasm and investment. What have you ever done to improve anything? AP is retired sound and living the life we all wish we could live. He deserves it. As for your Nehro claim; you truly have no idea what you are talking about. In fact, I'll go even farther; almost every opinion you come out with is wrong...completely. It is an embarrassment that your name is even Frank.....as some occasionally think that your bad comments come from me. UGH. Once again, I'll remind you to lighten up. Enjoy life and this great sport. I know if you really look at how much the Zayat family has invested in money, time, love into this great sport you'll see how they deserve the accolades for allowing us to enjoy AP and his great year. I look forward to future great horses of theirs and I can't wait for the offspring of AP to shine on the racetrack.
Ronald Friedman More than 1 year ago
JustinZayat More than 1 year ago
Because we are not greedy/selfish. He has done more than we could ever have imagined. He gave us all thrills of a lifetime. He will go down as the GREATEST SINGLE SEASON OF ANY THOROUGHBRED EVER. He did everything we ever wanted him to do. What is there more for him to do? He deserves to retire a SOUND and HAPPY horse. He is living a great life now and that is what we all wanted to see. Not pathetic at all, but a BLESSING for all of us that we were able to live through this horses amazing career. Once in a lifetime.
Frank More than 1 year ago
Justin, you are greedy selfish people...Please explain how you helped kill your horse Nehro -- by running him until his hoofs were falling off... You people are disgusting and terrible for horse racing..
ryan More than 1 year ago
He was amazing. Season was magical. Bid's 4 year old season was pretty special as well, they can be mentioned together. Congrats on the multiple Eclipse awards, and thanks sharing him with all of us. Running him in the Travers showed great sportsmanship, and I think that race added a great deal to his magical season. Of course we all wish we could see him run as a 4 year old, but this is one of those extremely rare instances where he has truly done enough for racing, for the owners, and for all of his fans.