Owner standing by Derby favorite American Pharoah
Louisville, Ky. — Ahmed Zayat can't contain his enthusiasm at having three horses running in the Kentucky Derby. The fast-talking Egyptian businessman is alternately nervous, hopeful and tickled pink.
"Hyper" is how trainer Bob Baffert describes his client, whose American Pharoah is expected to be the early favorite for Saturday's 141st Run for the Roses.
Listening to Zayat's bubbly chatter, there's no hint of the run of bad luck he's endured at the Derby. Three times his horses have finished second behind long shots.
In 2009, 50-1 Mine That Bird sneaked up along the rail and beat Pioneerof the Nile. In 2011, Nehro was defeated by 20-1 Animal Kingdom. A year later, 15-1 I'll Have Another beat Bodemeister.
Baffert can count two of those losses among his Derby defeats, having trained Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister.
"Luckily they run the Derby every year," he said.
Zayat had a double-dose of bad luck in 2010. His early Derby favorite Eskendereya was withdrawn days before the race with a leg injury and he filed for bankruptcy protection to keep his racing operation afloat after a bank claimed he defaulted on $34 million in loans.
Baffert has won the race three times, but not since 2002. He's been training for Zayat since 2007, becoming close friends while enduring the sport's ups and downs together. They exchange calls or text messages "like 10 times a day," Zayat said.
"We know the game. It changes every second and every time he calls me my heart sinks for 30 seconds," the owner said, knowing it could be bad news about his horses.
Zayat took his first crack at the Derby in 2008, when Z Fortune finished 10th and Z Humor was 14th.
Now 52, he retired 10 years ago, having sold his beer distributorship to Heineken for $280 million. He plowed the proceeds into buying more horses. His love of the sport is a family affair, with Justin, one of his four children, acting as racing manager for Zayat Stables.
"He has a lot of passion," Baffert said. "The clients that have a lot of passion, those are the best clients because they really want to do well. They invest a lot of time along with money. It's like owning their own team. They're very competitive, which is good. It's a trainer's dream to have clients like that."
The sport has taught the ultra-competitive Zayat a tough lesson: You may win at a 25 percent clip, but 75 percent of the time you're going to lose. "The first orientation is getting adjusted to being competitive and yet needing to turn the page and move on."
Baffert is in the unusual position of training the probable favorite and second choice this year. He's got American Pharoah for Zayat, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, and undefeated Dortmund for India-born owner Kaleem Shah.
"Hope for a dead-heat," the white-haired trainer joked.
Zayat has a close-up view of American Pharoah's biggest rival every time he visits his colt at Baffert's barn. Dortmund is housed in a nearby stall.
"I have tremendous respect for Dortmund, I have tremendous appreciation for Mr. Shah," Zayat said. "He's put a lot of money into the game. He's also passionate. If it's not going to be me (winning), it's going to be someone else."
Baffert refuses to choose between American Pharoah and Dortmund, comparing it to a parent asked to pick a favorite child.
Zayat has no such problem with his trio.
He is unabashedly partial to American Pharoah, the product of Zayat's first breeding attempt between sire Pioneerof the Nile and dam Littleprincessemma, named for one of his daughters.
"Sentimentally, I like him more," he said of the colt named by a fan through a contest on the family's website.
The brown colt with the unusually short tail — another horse chewed the end of it off on the farm — is coming off an eight-length win in the Arkansas Derby.
"From Day 1, he's been an absolute superstar," Zayat said.
Son Justin favors El Kabeir because he spends so much time in New York with the horse. The name translates to "The Boss," and it's how the elder Zayat is addressed by the family. The colt is trained by John Terranova, although he's also staying in Baffert's barn.
His third horse, Mr. Z, is named for Zayat, but not by choice. His four children submitted the name without him knowing because he thinks it's "corny" to name horses after yourself. Mr. Z is trained by four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. The chestnut colt is the most experienced among the 20-horse field, having raced 12 times with just one victory but nine in-the-money finishes.
So it's try, try, try again for Zayat at the Derby.
"If you love it, you keep coming to the well," he said.
141st Kentucky Derby
What: First leg of Thoroughbred Triple Crown
Post time: 6:33 p.m. Saturday, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
TV: NBCSN — Wednesday, Derby draw (5:30-6 p.m.), Thursday, Derby access (4-6 p.m.), Friday, Kentucky Oaks, etc. (12:30-6 p.m.), Saturday, Derby prep (12-4 p.m.);
NBC — Kentucky Derby (4-7:30 p.m.)
Purse: $2 million
Distance: 11/4 miles
Contenders (20 is maximum field): American Pharoah (160 season points) is expected to go off as the favorite, but International Star (171), Dortmund (170), and Carpe Diem (164) have more points.