There is little doubt that Ahmed Zayat is determined to own Thoroughbreds. And there is no greater qualification when it comes to horse ownership than determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity.
Owning Thoroughbreds is extremely rewarding when you win, which is not often. But it can test one’s resolve like few other endeavors, and it is the owners who are undaunted by defeat who help perpetuate the sport by continuing to plant new seeds every year from which to grow.
The old-time owners of private stables took losing graciously and were able to outlive the transient owners who threw their money around wildly and then had to crawl out of the sport beaten and broken, not just monetarily, but spiritually. Thoroughbred racing can do that to you, and you better have the mental toughness to put the heartbreaks behind you if you want to forge on with any hope of attaining the fame, glory, and riches that the sport can provide.
Zayat Stables, which is basically Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin, along with the rest of the family, has had to overcome adversity from all sides, including being forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 to protect their vast horse operation in order to keep it out of the hands of Fifth Third Bank, which Ahmed Zayat alleges engaged in “misleading, deceptive, and predatory practices that positioned Zayat Stables for financial ruin.”
From that rubble, the Zayats have built their stable back up stronger and deeper than ever. But even with them being out of firing range from the bank, they still have since been tested over and over again by the racing gods. Ahmed Zayat is Jewish and deeply religious, and at times he’s had to feel like one of the many characters from the Bible who had to overcome anguish and numerous hardships in order to prove themselves. No one is comparing Ahmed Zayat to Abraham, Moses, Noah, Job, or Joseph, but it sure does feel like he is being tested.
That is not to imply that Zayat Stables has not had success in racing, for they have won a number of important races. But when they have been in the sport’s brightest spotlights, with a chance to rewrite the history books, they have been dealt one cruel blow after another.
One of the biggest heartbreaks to an owner is losing a horse to injury, and many owners have had to face that misfortune. But when you lose the overwhelming favorite for the Kentucky Derby the week before the Run for the Roses, it makes it a lot more difficult to take, because you never know if you will ever get back there again.
In 2010, Zayat Stables lost their exciting and brilliant Kentucky Derby favorite Eskendereya, who never ran again. And to make it worse, they then had to watch as their trainer, Todd Pletcher, won the Derby that year with a horse few considered to be in the same class as Eskendereya.
But Eskendereya’s defection was only one incident that was sandwiched by several others on the racetrack from 2009 to 2012, all in Triple Crown races
In an unprecedented run of bad luck, the Zayats finished second in the Kentucky Derby in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Pioneerof the Nile managed to get beat by a 50-1 shot named Mine That Bird, who turned in one of the freakiest and most shocking performances in Derby and racing history. In 2011, Nehro managed to get beat by a horse who had never run on dirt in his life, the first time in Derby history that had occurred. Then in 2012, Bodemeister managed to blow a three-length lead at the eighth pole and get caught by a horse breaking from post 19, the only post that had never produced a Derby winner.
So, in the span of four years, the Zayats finished second in the Kentucky Derby three times and lost the big favorite a week before the race the other year.
Also, Nehro, had finished second, beaten a neck, in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby before running at Churchill Downs
But after Bodemsister’s crushing defeat in 2012, the Derby gods handed over the reins to the Triple Crown gods, who took over the torture. The exceptionally fast Bodemeister then finished second, beaten a neck, in the Preakness, again blowing a three-length lead at the eighth pole. When Bodemsister was sidelined following the Preakness, the Zayats brought out an ample replacement in Paynter, who led every step of the way in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, only to get caught right at the wire. Like Bodemeister, he was beaten only a neck.
So the Zayats had done the unthinkable. They had finished second in all three Triple Crown races in 2012 with two different horses, getting beat a neck twice, and having a clear lead in the stretch in all three races.
Looking back, the Zayats also had the leading sprinter in the country in 2009 in Zensational, for whom they paid $700,000 as a 2-year-old. After brilliant scores in the Triple Bend, Big Crosby, and Pat O’Brien, only a Breeders’ Cup Sprint victory stood between him and an Eclipse Award. But, sent off as the 9-5 favorite, he managed to get boxed in on the turn, forcing him to steady. Although he could only finish fifth, he still was beaten a mere 1 3/4 lengths.
In 2011, they had a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender in Jaycito, winner of the Norfolk Stakes and third in the San Felipe Stakes, but he also was injured and taken off the Derby trail. The year before, another top sprinter, Riley Tucker, finished second in the prestigious and historic Vosburgh Stakes.
They have continued to be tested since. With Justin Phillip, named for Ahmed’s son, in the running for sprint champion in 2013, he was beaten, yes, a neck, in the Vosburgh, with the winner battling back after apparently being beaten.
In 2014, the Zayats looked to have their strongest 2-year-old crop in quite a while and definitely had their sights set on the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, especially with American Pharoah, who was getting rave reviews from everyone after brilliant grade I victories in the Del Mar Futurity and Frontrunner Stakes. Trainer Bob Baffert hinted that he might be the best 2-year-old he’s ever trained. When he turned in a sensational workout Breeders’ Cup week all systems looked good for a Breeders’ Cup victory.
So, what happens? American Pharoah gets injured several days before the Breeders’ Cup and is scratched. The Zayats, crushed over the news, decided to cancel their trip to Santa Anita, despite having two other horses running, and then had to watch as Texas Red, a horse American Pharoah had crushed by almost five lengths in the Frontrunner, inhaled his field to win by 6 1/2 lengths.
The day after the Breeders’ Cup, the Zayats’ El Kabeir, another of their promising 2-year-olds, finished second in the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct.
No sooner had the Zayats recovered from the blow of American Pharoah, they had to endure another one three weeks later, as Mr. Z, who had finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was beaten a nose in the $1 million Delta Jackpot by a horse who had only two lifetime starts, both sprints, and was breaking from the far outside post on the Delta Downs bullring. They were given some hope when there was a foul claim and stewards’ inquiry against the winner, but the result was allowed to stand.
Also this year, they have seen their aptly named warrior Prayer For Relief run his heart out on several occasions, only to come away with a second in the Pimlico Special and thirds in the Woodward Stakes and Suburban Handicap. We’ll see if he can get back on the winning track in this Friday’s Clark Handicap?
So, when will it all end for the Zayats? When will their name be inscribed in the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup history books? When will it be decried that they have been tested enough? When will the ark be completed?
After all, they did go far out of the box and do everything humanely possible, regardless of the enormous cost, to save the life of Paynter, whose chances of survival following a series of serious medical issues seemed slim at best. Even though the colt returned to the races, his best stakes finishes, of course, were a pair of second-place finishes in the Awesome Again Stakes and San Diego Handicap. But to the Zayats, Paynter scored a much bigger victory just getting to those races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, something no one thought was even remotely possible.
Many owners throughout the years who have persevered through adversity and remained strong and dedicated to the Sport of Kings have ultimately been rewarded.
You can be sure of one thing: the Zayats will be back next spring, still believing in their heart that their time is near.