Three times, horses owned by Ahmed Zayat finished second in the Kentucky Derby.
Pioneerof the Nile, 2009.
Zayat truly believes he has the winner this year in American Pharoah, his 2-year-old champion and heavy favorite for Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
"When you feel you have a horse that can't lose," Zayat began, then hesitated a few seconds before continuing. "… I've never had that feeling before. It's eerie, scary, and I don't want to jinx myself. But I have unbelievable excitement about this horse."
Zayat is rarely lost for words. The 52-year-old Egyptian-born entrepreneur who lives in New Jersey is a daily presence on Twitter with more than 135,000 followers. People ask his opinion, he's not shy about sharing it. He's posted more than 17,000 times in three years.
He can't say enough about American Pharoah, either. The 3-year-old bay colt has been a picture of perfection since finishing fifth in the first race of his career. He's won three in a row by a combined 14-1/4 lengths and has yet to be seriously tested.
In fact, he's been so overpowering Zayat is looking for another easy win on Saturday and for jockey Victor Espinoza to make sure American Pharoah doesn't run harder than necessary.
"My goal is to save all his ammunition for the day that counts," Zayat said of the Derby on May 2. We want him to peak on the day he needs to peak. We want him to win, but we don't want to show off."
American Pharoah is trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, who also has unbeaten Dortmund — owned by Kaleem Shah — in his barn. The two are considered the leading contenders for the Derby. Zayat is well aware of the competition.
"When you see a good one, you're jealous if it's a horse you don't own," Zayat said. "Dortmund is a very nice horse. Undefeated. A beauty. Huge but athletic."
However, he goes on, "Dortmund can't go with American Pharoah. He can't. He's that fast. But in the Derby, we're talking a mile-and-a-quarter and a different setting. Dortmund has been tested. American Pharoah hasn't. We think we are the faster horse. Whether we have the fastest horse to win at the right time, we'll find out in the Derby."
Baffert isn't about to pick one over the other.
"We know that Dortmund is probably more battle tested. He's been in a fight," Baffert said. "American Pharoah, he's a different type of horse. He's fast, but he does it effortlessly. He cruises effortlessly. So I really don't know. He hasn't been in a dog fight, so we don't know how he's going to respond. They're just two different types of horses and it's sort of hard to compare them."
American Pharoah isn't Zayat's only Derby hopeful. He also owns Gotham winner and Wood third-place finisher El Kabeir and Mr. Z, who is among the eight horses entered for the Arkansas Derby.
Zayat, who runs Zayat Stables with son Justin, owns about 200 thoroughbreds and spends millions at sales around the world. His horses have earned more than $40 million at the races, and he's encountered the emotional ups and downs of the sport during a short period:
■ In 2010, Eskendereya won the Wood Memorial and was the Derby favorite before he was sidelined, then retired, by a leg injury six days before the Run for the Roses.
■ In 2012, Bodemeister was considered the top 3-year-old, but finished a close second in the Derby and the Preakness. Another of his top 3-year-olds, Paynter, ran second in the Belmont Stakes, won the Haskell Invitational, then nearly died of complications from colitis before returning to racing in '13.
■ In 2013, his 2011 Derby runner-up Nehro died of colic on the way to a hospital.
"I've been blessed by having very nice horses to compete in the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, and I've had my share of success and defeat," Zayat said. I just feel that he (American Pharoah) is head and shoulders above. He's amazing to watch. He glides. He floats. He's a very pretty horse. I'm totally high on him."
So are the oddsmakers. American Pharoah is the 1-2 morning-line choice for the 1-1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, the final major prep before the Derby. He drew the No. 6 post.
The Derby-qualifying race is worth 100 points to the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth. American Pharoah already has a spot in the Derby field with 60 points, most coming from his 6-1/4-length win the Rebel Stakes last month despite losing a shoe on a sloppy track.
Far Right, winner of the Smarty Jones and the Southwest, is the 9-2 second choice.
The field, from the rail out: The Truth Or Else (Calvin Borel, 15-1), Mr. Z (Ramon Vazquez, 10-1), Bridget's Big Luvy (Angel Cruz, 20-1), Madefromlucky (John Velazquez, 6-1), Bold Conquest (Ricardo Santana Jr., 20-1), American Pharoah (Espinoza, 1-2), Far Right (Smith, 9-2), and Win The Space (Kent Desormeaux, 30-1).