Kentucky Derby Recap: American Idol

The journey of a lifetime is often measured by the amount of obstacles one must overcome, and that is why American Pharoah’s thrilling victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) brought such a wave of raw emotion from the Zayat family, ranging from tears to unbounded jubilation.

For the Zayats, who are deeply rooted in the Jewish religion and its traditions, the “simcha,” or joy, they experienced was a gift from God, and as Ahmed Zayat believes, God can take on many forms, and on May 2 it was the Derby gods who brought them to the pinnacle of success in the Thoroughbred industry, to which every member of the Zayat family has dedicated his or her life in one form or another.

This was the path and ultimately the destination that was chosen for them, and in order to reach that destination they had to endure numerous heartaches, such as three second-place finishes in the Run for the Roses in 2009 (with Pioneerof the Nile), 2011 (with Nehro), and 2012 (with Bodemeister), losing the Derby favorite Eskendereya to injury the week of the race in 2010, and even to losing one of their three Derby starters, El Kabeir, this year, the day before the race.

But little did they know that the ultimate racehorse and Kentucky Derby glory awaited them in the form of a very special horse named American Pharoah, who they not only owned, but bred, the result of a mating between their first Derby runnerup, the homebred Pioneerof the Nile, and a mare, Littleprincessemma, named after Ahmed and Joanne Zayat’s youngest daughter, Emma.

For their trainer, Bob Baffert, success in the Kentucky Derby became second nature after capturing the roses in 1997, 1998, and 2002, but a 12-year drought, despite sending a number of top-class horses to Churchill Downs, humbled him into appreciating how difficult a prize the Derby is to achieve.

Baffert came into this year’s Derby with the two favorites in American Pharoah and Dortmund, but unlike most trainers with that much responsibility and the stress that accompanies it, Baffert was loose and quietly confident all week. He, too, was being guided to this moment in his life, where he and his wife Jill could share a Derby victory with their 10-year-old son Bode, who has grown up at the racetrack, and who had to endure a heart-breaking second-place finish in 2012 by the Zayat-owned Bodemeister, who was named after him.

Baffert had come to Churchill Downs with the Derby favorite before during the past 12 years, but this year was different. This year, he had an old friend to help relieve any anxieties he might be experiencing and to remind him of a special time in his life when he transcended the sport and his profession to become a national celebrity. That special friend, whose toughness and courage first brought Baffert into the hallowed winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby in 1997 was Silver Charm, who had recently arrived at Old Friends Retirement facility in Georgetown, Ky. after spending nearly a decade in Japan. Several days before the Derby, Baffert, Jill, and Bode made the drive up I-64 to visit Silver Charm, who is now as white as his trainer’s hair.

It proved to be a cathartic experience for Baffert as he was reunited with the horse who made his career and endeared him to people all over the country. Sometimes a trip back to one’s past can bring the present into focus and make one realize how fortunate they were and are today. It was time for Baffert to introduce his past, and who he is, to his son in the living form of Silver Charm, who before that was just name and a dashing figure seen on video.

“Bob was overwhelmed seeing him,” Jill said. “This was the horse who started it all and I think that’s why Bob got so emotional. He’s like your first love. He holds that special place in Bob’s heart. “

Baffert added, “Oh, my God, he got me. We saw him from far away and all of a sudden when (Old Friends founder) Michael Blowen called him and he came trotting to the fence. He’s still the same tough horse. I wanted to cry. He made me so emotional.”

The Zayats also had a stop to make before the Derby, and that was to WinStar Farm to visit Pioneerof the Nile, as well as Bodemeister, and their beloved Paynter, whose life they saved several times through great perseverance and enormous cost, as the racing world prayed for this courageous horse.

When Pioneerof the Nile was brought out, Ahmed Zayat walked up to him and whispered in his ear, “Your son is going to do it for you.”

Everything was in place for something magical to happen for the Zayats and the Bafferts, and for jockey Victor Espinoza, who was trying to win his third Kentucky Derby and second in a row following last year’s victory aboard California Chrome. His first Derby win was on War Emblem, who was Baffert’s third winner before his 12-year drought.

Putting even more pressure on Baffert and Zayat were the comments made about American Pharoah from people in all walks of racing life, even rival trainers. He was being compared to legendary athletes, from Seattle Slew to Michael Jordan, and even to Pegasus himself.

Well respected private clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young, said of the colt, “I have been doing this for 35 years, and he might be the best horse I’ve ever seen. He stays in the air longer than any horse and you get the feeling that there’s not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears.”

Carla Gaines, who trained Derby starter Bolo, admitted, “He breathes different air than other horses. Time and again he’s done everything so easily. He’s a spectacle to behold on the racetrack. It’s like his feet don’t touch the ground; he just floats. He kind of sprouts wings. He definitely could be a superhorse.”

American Pharoah had cruised to brilliant victories in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and Frontrunner Stakes (gr. I) at 2 before an injury knocked him out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), won in a romp by Texas Red, who American Pharoah had crushed in the Frontrunner. Coming off a 5 1/2-length layoff, he romped to easy, spectacular victories in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I).

But he did not emerge overnight as a potential superhorse. This is a horse whose journey to possible superstardom began in earnest one morning at the McKathan Brothers Farm in Florida, where he was given his early training. The McKathans – J.B. and Kevin – were putting on a breeze show for the Zayats, showcasing their 2-year-olds. In attendance were representatives from WinStar Farm and several trainers, including Dale Romans and Tony Dutrow.

“We knew American Pharoah was special as soon as we let him do something on the track,” said Chris Alexander, who has been with the McKathans for eight years and deals directly with the Zayats. “At the breeze show, everybody was there, and J.B. asked me, ‘When are you bringing up Pharoah?’ I said I needed to breeze a couple of sets first, because he needs to be last and be on the racetrack by himself.”

Alexander and the McKathans were well aware of the show American Pharoah was about to put on. “Everyone was standing there talking and he came galloping by the viewing stand and we told them this was the best one Mr. Zayat’s got,” Alexander said. “Then when he broke off at the pole everyone went quiet.”

American Pharoah came flying down the stretch with those smooth, magnificent strides and everyone at once knew they were looking at something out of the ordinary.  As he passed the wire, all you could hear was Ahmed Zayat utter an expletive phrase beginning with the word “Holy.” As the colt was pulling up, J.B. wasted no time in telling Zayat, “Figure out who you’re gonna send him to and get him out of here.”

“J.B. turned to me and said, “Chris, get this sucker off the farm right now,” Alexander said. “He’s too much horse for us to have here. Tammy Fox (Dale Romans’ wife) was watching the breeze at the other end of the viewing stand and leaned over and said, ‘Dale, I want that one.’ But everyone wanted him. You could gallop him with two fingers, but once you took the rings off and he knew he was working, then he’d be tough. But he’d walk back to the barn and cool out in 10 minutes. Thirty minutes later you’d go to his stall and he was laid out fast asleep. This was after just going out there and working like you couldn’t even imagine a horse could work.”

Kevin McKathan added, “I’ve had my hands on a lot of talented horses (including many of Baffert’s top horses), but I’ve never had my hands on a horse this special and this fast.”

Although Baffert did not attend the breeze show, he was sent a video of the colt working and immediately contacted Ahmed Zayat and said, “Just remember, the Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita this year.” Before he knew it, American Pharoah was in his barn and life was about to change for the Baffert and Zayat families.

Fast forward about a year later and not much had changed. Here was American Pharoah now working for the Kentucky Derby and still having the ability to make jaws drop at the ease and grace with which he moves, while still breaking stopwatches. Although it looked as if he was cruising along at a leisurely place, he was clocked five furlongs in a blistering :58 2/5, popping off the eighths in :11 2/5, :11 3/5, :11 3/5, and :11 4/5 before coming home another eighth in :12 flat without even the slightest urging by jockey Martin Garcia, who barely moved on him. He then galloped out six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 and pulled up seven panels in 1:27.

“He looked like he was just loping out there,” said veteran trainer Phil Thomas. “I really didn’t think he was working that fast. I’ll tell you, Bob’s taking no prisoners this year.”

But for Justin Zayat, Ahmed’s oldest son and racing manager for Zayat Stables, a work like this was a reality check in grasping just what kind of horse they would be sending into the Kentucky Derby. 

“Unbelievable,” he said. “It gave me chills.”

Exercise rider George Alvarez, who has also galloped Bayern, Bodemister, and Pioneerof the Nile, admitted even he doesn’t know how good American Pharoah is. “He makes it very easy for you, because he loves to train,” he said. “His long strides cover so much ground and he’s always feeling good, so you have to make sure you don’t let him go too fast. When they cover that much ground that easily, you know they’re special.”

For Baffert, he not only had the Derby favorite, he also had the second choice in Dortmund, a towering son of Big Brown, owned by Kaleem Shah. Dortmund was a star in his own right, winning all six of his career starts, including gutsy victories over Firing Line in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) and Robert Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and easy front-running scores in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

“Why couldn’t I have had Dortmund last year?” Baffert said regarding his embarrassment of riches. Actually, Dortmund came precariously close to not making the trip at all when he colicked and was in pain following his final work at Santa Anita. Fortunately, he came out of it right away and quickly was back to normal.

Kentucky Derby 141, despite the imposing presence of American Pharoah and Dortmund, was being called one of the deepest and most talented Derby fields of all time, with top-class horses such as Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Frosted; Firing Line, winner of the Sunland Park Derby by 14 lengths after dropping two gut-wrenching decisions to Dortmund; Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Materiality, winner of the Florida Derby, and his illustrious stablemate Carpe Diem, easy winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), and International Star, who swept all three major Derby preps at Fair Grounds, including the Louisiana Derby. There was even a potential superstar from Dubai named Mubtaahij, winner of two legs of the United Arab Emirates Triple Crown, including an eight-length romp in the UAE Derby. (UAE-II). But it was American Pharoah, who was made a strong 5-2 morning line favorite, with Dortmund second choice at 3-1.

One person who was extremely confident in his chances was Firing Line’s jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Silver Charm to his Derby victory.

“He’s been out of sight, out of mind, not running in six weeks,” Stevens said. “But Baffert knows what I’m sitting on and that’s all that’s important. Everything with this horse has been by design. Simon (trainer Callaghan) said, ‘Why do we want to run against Dortmund again if we don’t have to before Derby Day? There’s no sense killing each other. Our job is to get him to the Derby in the best shape, and we gave him a confidence builder in the Sunland Derby.’ This horse’s strength is his mind. He’s a great athlete, but he has the mind to go with it.”

After riding Firing Line twice, Stevens felt he now knew the horse and was confident he could turn the tables on Dortmund.

At the draw, American Pharoah drew way on the outside in post 18. For Ahmed and Justin Zayat, they were elated. In Hebrew, the word “chai” means “life,” and the number that represents chai is 18.

“I love it, I absolutely love it,” Ahmed Zayat said.

It just seemed so obvious that the Derby gods were at work, having tested the Zayats on so many occasions, only to lead them on this memorable journey and reward them with this remarkable horse. As the pharoahs would say, “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

Ahmed Zayat is a very spiritual and religious man and often makes references to God in his tweets, asking Him to guide his horses safely through their races.

Following American Pharoah’s victory at Oaklawn Park, Zayat tweeted, “Just got this from Baffert. BEAST is home safe dragging Jimmy (assistant Barnes) around the barn. Feet perfect. Thank you lord.”

Another read, “Bob Baffert called me. On cloud 9. He let the BEAST roll a little. Please lord keep him sound.”

Whether you refer to them as Derby gods or any other spiritual entity one chooses, Zayat truly believes, “There is some power that is dictating all this and giving us this.”

With all the hoopla at Churchill Downs, a vastly different scene was being played out about 60 miles away at WinStar Farm, as Pioneerof the Nile finished up his first of three breeding sessions for the day. Brought out of his stall, he stood for at least 10 minutes, staring into the breeding shed, ears pricked, and not moving a muscle. He coat had a bright gleam to it and he looked racing fit.

“He’s all class, said general manager Dave Hanley. “This is him. He never bites; he’s just amazing. Look how well balanced he is.” Hanley then had the horse walk to show off another of his attributes. “Now watch the way he moves,” he continued. “He has that big walk.”

Sounds like he might have also been describing a certain son of his, who the next day would be showing the world his class and how he moves.

And so, Derby Day finally arrived with a full moon shining brightly on Churchill Downs. The original field of 20 had been altered with the defection of the Pletcher-trained Stanford, allowing Frammento to get in off the also-eligible list, the scratch of Zayat’s El Kabeir the day before the race due to heat in his ankle, and International Star’s defection the morning of the race due to an ankle chip. Zayat was upset over El Kabeir’s scratch, not for himself, but for trainer John Terranova, who managed to get the colt through one of the worst winters in New York history with two stakes victories and two stakes placings only to suffer a minor injury the day before the Derby. All Zayat could do was to give his trainer a big hug and hope for better days.

“I make it through the ice age up in New York with everything going perfectly, and then I come here with beautiful weather and a nice soft track, and he gets hurt,” Terranova said standing outside the barn Derby morning.

American Pharoah closed as the 5-2 favorite, with Dortmund second choice at 4-1. The only other two horses in single digits were Carpe Diem at 7-1 and Firing Line at 9-1.

At the start, Materiality broke sideways and dropped far off the pace, which would cost him dearly, as he kept hitting a wall of horses every time he tried to improve position. Dortmund cruised up to the lead, as he’s done in his last two starts, with Firing Line moving up on even terms on his outside. Mr. Z angled sharply to the inside, with American Pharoah following him and settling into third, just off Firing Line’s flank, with Carpe Diem on the inside in fourth. Right behind them a major traffic jam developed, with Bolo, Danzig Moon, and Mr. Z all getting severely jostled around.

Going into the first turn, Stevens remained several paths outside Dortmund, keeping American Pharoah four to five paths wide. It was a classic case of race-riding by the cagey Stevens. After a fairly testing opening quarter in :23.24, Dortmund held a narrow lead over a stalking Firing Line, who was under a nice long hold from Stevens, with American Pharoah settling three-wide in third and Carpe Diem still in the hunt in fourth, followed by Danzig Moon.

The half was run in :47.34, as Carpe Diem failed to keep up with the top three and began dropping back. Meanwhile, Frosted was near the back of the pack racing very wide, along with a hard-luck Materiality, who had won the Florida Derby (gr. I) on the lead and now found himself way out of his normal running style and unable to find any clear paths.

The first three began to assert themselves heading into the far turn, separating themselves from the rest of horses through three-quarters in 1:11.29. Frosted was the only one moving with any authority, as the blue Godolphin silks could be seen passing horses at a good clip well out in the middle of the track. Espinoza began pushing on American Pharoah, who was facing the first stiff test of his career. Unlike his competition in his previous races, these two horses weren’t going away. Could American Pharoah, who had been used to cruising to easy victories, stand up to pressure for the first time? In front of him it was Firing Line and Dortmund once again hooking up, but this time, Firing Line was going the better of the two and wrested command from the big chestnut, who, as usual, tried to battle back.

American Pharoah was now under a drive to catch Firing Line. Stevens brought his colt wide turning for home to keep off Dortmund’s radar screen. Espinoza went even wider and American Pharoah’s momentum carried him out seven or eight wide. He took a narrow lead from Firing Line, who kept fighting back, despite not changing leads. It was now a two-horse race, as a stubborn Dortmund could no longer keep pace. This was where American Pharoah’s toughness, fortitude, and pedigree needed to kick in, and he delivered, as Espinoza had to go to a fury of right-handed whips. As much as Firing Line kept trying to come back at him, American Pharoah kept holding him off, winning by one length in 2:03.02 over a track that appeared to have gotten noticeably slower following the long span between dirt races.

Dortmund was another two lengths back in third, just holding off the late-closing Frosted, with Danzig Moon hanging tough to get fifth. Materiality. who was trapped behind a wall of horses for most of the race and unable to make any headway, finally found room by ducking to the inside and closing fast to finish sixth in an exceptional performance for a horse with only three career starts and who threw a shoe in the race. Another horse who had an eventful trip was Keen Ice, who was at the back of the pack, and wherever he tried to go, either Itsaknockout or Frammento blocked his path until he finally had to knock Frammento out of his way. He then closed fast to finish a respectable seventh.

Following the race, it was pure bedlam, from the roar of the record crowd of 170,513 to the rapturous celebration by the Zayat family. In the box, Joanne Zayat was weeping, which actually started during the race, and Justin was so overcome with emotion he became sick to his stomach. Out on the track, Justin and his father, hugged and kept jumping up and down, shouting “We did it! We did it!”

All Joanne could say was, “I can’t believe it. I’m breathless.”

The Zayats’ oldest daughter, Ashley, who was recently married, could barely contain her emotions. “I’m short of breath; this does not feel like real life,” she said. “I’m dreaming. My father has waited for this for so long, now we’re finally the bride; no more bridesmaid. I know that racing more than anything needs a Triple Crown winner and we hope he’s the one.”

Justin tried to put his feelings into words. “It’s emotional it’s unbelievable, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “Pinch me, I feel like I’m dreaming right now; wake me up. Oh, my God, what a training job; he’s a master, and what an unbelievable ride from Victor. I can’t believe we bred this machine; this freak of nature.”

The Bafferts had watched the race in their usual spot in the paddock, and Bode could not contain his joy, leaping in the air in sheer ecstasy. He had come full circle in his father’s racing life, from Silver Charm to American Pharoah, in the span of four days. Bode finally was able to experience the ultimate thrill his father had felt three times before he was born. What made it even more special for Baffert was having his older sons from his first marriage in attendance as well. As they headed to the track, Bode had one more thing he needed to say: “Dad, thank you for fulfilling my Derby dream.”

But by the time they made their way across the track and neared the winner’s circle, Bode switched gears from emotion to hard core fact. Although only 10, the racing fan in him came out and he asked his father bluntly, “What was the time?” Baffert chuckled and told him 2:03 but not to pay attention to that. This was not the moment to start analyzing the merits of the race based on time.

This victory also was a statement win by Espinoza, who two months earlier found out he had not received the sufficient amount of votes for induction into the Racing Hall of Fame. This third Kentucky Derby victory may have just put him over the top, as it did Calvin Borel.

For Ahmed Zayat, he now knew the master plan that had been mapped out for him, as he watched his wife and children pour out their emotions. All the frustrations and heartaches had led him and his family to this special moment that will forever remain frozen in time.

“Joanne was bawling, literally bawling,” he said. “I’ve never seen her like that before. That was quite a scene, with my wife crying and my kid throwing up. We count our blessings. Hopefully he comes out of it well. We’ll give him lots of kisses and carrots and love. Man has his plans and God has His plans and I’m grateful we’re worthy to be part of it. We’ve experienced the highs and the lows and had to deal with injuries. You just enjoy the wonderful moments. It’s all about respecting the culture of the sport, from the groom to the hard working trainers. Bob has an unbelievable staff. You should see George the exercise rider crying. It’s just incredible teamwork, and we’re all part of history now.”

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