LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ahmed Zayat performed a Bergdorf Goodman makeover of the Churchill Downs barn area Sunday, sauntering past the hay and horse poop in cranberry trousers and mint suede Gucci loafers. No socks.
The ensemble jumped out amid the dirty boots and faded jeans that populate the working area of the world’s most famous racetrack. The owner of 5-2 favorite American Pharoah and two other entrants in the 141st Kentucky Derby wasn’t interested in posing as a faux Kentucky hardboot. Nor was he afraid of standing out – something he’s done most of his life.
The 52-year-old Zayat was raised Jewish in Egypt, part of the last generation of a population that has all but vanished from that country. Published reports put the number of Jews in Egypt as of last year at fewer than 40.
The son of a prominent Cairo doctor and grandson of a writer, Zayat left home as a teenager to pursue an education abroad. His zest for life and quest for freedom led him to the United States, where he earned a graduate degree from Boston University.
In addition to his faith, he brought some other important things with him from Egypt: a lifelong love of horses, a crazily competitive streak and an overflowing optimism often found in American immigrants. Roll those traits together and you have a gregarious, emotive man who has risen to very near the top of the thoroughbred racing game – seemingly impervious to all the bruises he has absorbed along the way.
“Nobody has a passion for the game like the Zayat family,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle 50-1 long shot Mr. Z for the Zayats in the Derby. “They are into it big-time. ... They’re fun. That enthusiasm is something to see. They’ll come in here [on Derby day] with 40-50 people. It’ll be like a pep rally.”
They have the horse to rally around in American Pharoah, who may finally deliver Zayat to the Derby winner’s circle after years of coming close. His horses finished second in 2009, ’11 and ’12 – on two occasions looking like the winner at some point in the stretch before being overtaken by a long shot. The one year in that run in which he did not finish second, in 2010, was worse – his pre-race favorite, Eskendereya, was scratched before the race with a career-ending leg injury.
“I know the agony,” Zayat said. “It’s peaks and valleys. We’re very blessed, but I know the game.”
Among the peaks: Zayat Stables led all of North America in earnings in 2008, just its third year of existence. Among the valleys: Zayat filed for bankruptcy protection just two years after that, when a Kentucky bank claimed he defaulted on $34 million in loans. He agreed to repay the loans over a period of five years.
There also were racing commission investigations of loans Zayat made nearly a decade ago to a pair of bookmakers – loans he said had nothing to do with gambling. And a lawsuit alleged that Zayat was allowed to bet on credit through racetracks in his home state of New Jersey, in violation of state law.
But through all that, Ahmed Zayat has been undeterred in his pursuit of racing glory. His love of horses dates to being a show jumper as a kid, and after selling an Egyptian beverage company to Heineken for $280 million at the age of 42, he had the financial means and the time to devote to that avocation.
“I am, by nature, a workaholic,” Zayat said. “I worked 18 hours a day. I decided to take my passion to [racing].
“By nature I’m an optimistic person,” Zayat said. “You have to be, to be in this game. ... If you love it, you keep coming to the well.”
The family’s love of the game led them to diversify beyond ownership and get into the breeding end of things. That resulted in the coupling of Pioneerof the Nile – one of Zayat’s Derby runner-up horses – with a mare named after Ahmed’s youngest child, Littleprincessemma. They produced a foal on Feb. 2, 2012, that would be named American Pharoah.
From his birth at Stockplace Farm near Lexington, Ky., humans have been raving about this animal.
“All foals, for me, are cute,” Zayat said. “This one was very strong, very muscled up, beautiful conformation.”
“Damn nice horse” was the comment that came with pictures of the newborn that were sent to the Zayats. American Pharoah was weaned at Vinery, a breeding and boarding facility in central Kentucky, and then sent to sprawling Taylor Made Farm outside of Lexington to be prepared for the yearling sales. Even among the dozens of high-quality yearlings at Taylor Made, one stood out.
“We went to the farm one day and he just looked freakin’ awesome,” said Justin Zayat, Ahmed’s 23-year-old son, who is the racing and stallion manager of Zayat Stables.
Zayat liked the colt enough that he was not going to sell him for less than $1 million, and when American Pharoah failed to fetch that kind of price in the sales ring, his owner gladly brought him into his own stable. Almost everything has unfolded according to plan since then.
But it’s fitting for Ahmed Zayat’s thoroughbred experiences that even now, with his best horse ever, the ultimate prize will not come easily. American Pharoah looks great – but so do a half-dozen other contenders in what many are saying is the best Derby field in many years.
Zayat doesn’t even have to walk far down the shedrow at trainer Bob Baffert’s Barn 33 on the Churchill backside before arriving at the prime competition: undefeated Dortmund, owned by another 52-year-old American émigré, Kaleem Shah.
That’s put Baffert in the enviable-but-precarious position of catering to two clients vying against each other for the roses.
“He is my trainer, my friend, my confidant and my competitor on Saturday,” Zayat said of Baffert.
Derby week has unfolded serenely for both the American Pharoah and Dortmund camps, with the only slight complication being American Pharoah drawing the No. 18 post Wednesday. (He will start from the 17 hole after Stanford was scratched.) That will require jockey Victor Espinoza – who won the Derby last year aboard California Chrome – to make some smart decisions out of the gate to avoid losing ground by running too wide.
But even with everything going according to plan, the excitement has overwhelmed the Zayat camp. Nobody is sleeping more than four hours a night, Justin Zayat said.
Most of the week, Ahmed and Justin have been shuttling between the Galt House Hotel, Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and Barn 33. Killing time. Waiting for race day. And imagining what it would be like to see their blue and gold silks flash past the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby.
“He’ll be up in the sky,” Justin said of his father. “A lot of kissing, a lot of jumping up and down.”
It would be one more chance for Ahmed Zayat to stand out.