Most fairy tales are born in the creative minds of gifted writers, but on rare occasions they are born in the most obvious of places. For American Pharoah and the Zayat family, their fairy tale was born in part in the most obvious place of all, Disneyland, where Cinderella stories come to life every day. But that is where they remain.
For Ahmed Zayat, he would utter one word that would change his and his family’s entire world. By simply saying “no” during his visit to the Magic Kingdom and buying back his Pioneerof the Nile colt, who was facing the auctioneer’s hammer 3,000 miles away at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, Zayat would write his own fairy tale, with the emphasis on Tomorrowland.
Less than two and a half years later, Tomorrowland became today, as Zayat and his family once again stood in the winner’s circle shortly after a deluge of epic proportions, this time accepting the historic Woodlawn Vase following American Pharoah’s tour-de-force in the Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I), leaving the colt one step away from immortality.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Justin Zayat, Ahmed’s oldest son and racing manager. “My father and I are yelling in the park, “We’re not selling this horse.” We own 75 percent of Pioneerof the Nile, and we were told we could get $1 million for him, because he was such a standout at Taylor Made Farm, and we have so many good ones, selling him would help the stallion. We never sell any of our homebreds, but we put him in the sale just to feel it out and help out Pioneerof the Nile. He had hit himself four weeks before the sale and had a little bump and that scared some people a little. So somebody was watching out for us. Sometimes, things are just meant to be.”
So, right there at Disneyland, Zayat, who never really wanted to sell the colt, removed him from the bidding by buying him himself through bloodstock agent David Ingordo for $300,000. Little did he know he was buying a part of racing history that would eventually lead him and his family on an unforgettable journey that even Disney would be proud of.
Everyone has their own concept of what a fairy tale is and what constitutes a Cinderella story. To many, a horse owned by a powerful racing family and trained by one of the most successful trainers of all time are not the ingredients one would expect to find in a feel-good Cinderella story, such as the stories behind Funny Cide or Smarty Jones. But try to tell any of the Zayats they are not living out a fairy tale. Try to tell Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert that the racing gods are not smiling down on them following years of heartbreaking defeats in the classics and off-the-track travails, both financial and health related.
Instead of a golden coach, the Zayats would arrive at the Preakness ball in a recreational vehicle, where they would stay the night before the race. The Zayats are deeply religious and are not permitted to travel on the Jewish Sabbath.
Zayat, still on cloud nine after American Pharoah’s victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), actually had just arrived in Baltimore following a whirlwind trip to Italy, Israel and Egypt in less than 72 hours, where he attended a wedding and conducted business.
Meanwhile, Justin had remained home to take final exams at New York University (NYU), where he was majoring in economics. Not many young men Justin’s age can claim to win the Kentucky Derby, then take finals, help negotiate a million-dollar sale of one of their horses (Mr. Z), win the Preakness Stakes, and finally graduate college all in the span of 2 1/2 weeks. For Justin especially, it was a case of fairy tale and reality colliding.
So, with Justin taking his tests and his family traveling abroad, they could only get reports from trainer Bob Baffert on how American Pharoah was training up to the second leg of the Triple Crown.
The day after arriving at Pimlico, American Pharoah took a spin around the track, and as he had done so often at Santa Anita and Churchill Downs, just glided around there at a strong clip, his feet appearing to barely touch the ground. There was no doubt the Derby took little out of him physically and mentally and that he was loving the Pimlico surface.
A few seconds after he passed by Baffert, who was watching from the rail, Bernie Schiappa, co-owner of the now-retired Game On Dude, and Baffert’s constant traveling companion and one-man entourage, turned around and walked over to an onlooker and quietly said, as having just come to a revelation, “They’re not beating this horse.”
Even Baffert was outwardly impressed. “Man, look at that sonofagun,” he said as the colt motored by him. “He moves like a Ferrari.”
Waiting for Danzig Moon to gallop was assistant trainer Norman Casse, and although his colt would have a strong gallop himself, the first words out of Casse’s mouth were, “Boy, American Pharoah looked great. I see what they’re talking about.”
At first, it appeared as if only seven horses would be entered for the Preakness, but that is where D. Wayne Lukas stepped in, determined to run the Zayats’ Mr. Z, who had finished a troubled 13th in the Kentucky Derby.
But Justin and Ahmed stated emphatically the colt would not run. That, however, didn’t deter Lukas, who got on the phone with one of his main clients, Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm.
“We were talking about Skyring (who was running in the grade II Dixie Stakes the race before the Preakness) and he asked me if I was running Mr. Z,” Lukas said. “I told him he was very doubtful and that I have five million people who don’t want me to run, but I’ve got all the quirks out of him and have him focused. He’s not bearing out or lugging out on the turns; that’s all behind him.
“The following morning before entries were drawn, Mr. Zayat told me not to enter, but Brad asked me if the colt could be bought. That’s when I thought I might be able to do something here.”
So began literally last-minute negotiations among Lukas, Kelley, Ahmed Zayat, and Justin Zayat. Ahmed put a “crazy” price on the horse that he was sure would be rejected, which it was. But Lukas went to work trying to tweak a little here and a little there until finally Kelley agreed and bought the horse right before entries closed.
“Wayne is at the barn at 3:30 and he’s 80 years old and who knows how many more Triple Crown races he has left,” Zayat said. “I didn’t want to deprive him of this chance. I love Mr. Z; my kids named him after me. If he wins, the first thing I’ll do is go over there and give him a big kiss.”
For Justin, who not long ago was just an eighth grader with braces and glasses who thought his dad was crazy for buying horses, this was all surreal, as he showed up at Pimlico two days before the race, having finally finished his exams.
“I haven’t come back to earth yet,” he said. “This is all crazy, isn’t it? Here I am winning the Kentucky Derby and then having to study for finals the next day. I had to watch the race six or seven times before it could sink in. Then I’m studying while watching the draw at the same time after being on the phone with my dad and Wayne helping to negotiate the sale of Mr. Z. I try to combine a college life with work, but this isn’t work for me. Coming out to the track is like a kid going to play basketball.
“We tried so hard to win the Derby, finishing second three times and losing the favorite, Eskendereya, the week of the race. The Derby is what we really wanted and no matter what happens, no one can ever take that away from us and our champion. Whether he runs first or last in the Preakness, he’ll always be a Kentucky Derby winner.”
The main competition in the Preakness was expected to come from the second- and third-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby, Firing Line and American Pharoah’s stablemate Dortmund. Also in the field were Danzig Moon, a troubled fifth in the Derby, the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) winner Divining Rod, the Laurel-based stakes winner Bodhisattva, and the recent maiden winner Tale of Verve, who made a tremendous physical appearance and who trainer Dallas Stewart was convinced was going to run a big race and pick up a piece of it, feeling the son of Tale of Ekati was just getting good following a couple of horrendous trips and had already won at the Preakness distance.
While the main contenders were getting ready to fly to Baltimore from Louisville the Wednesday before the race, about 40 miles from Pimlico, at the Fair Hill Training Center, Divining Rod was going out for his gallop, leading a six-horse set, with trainer Arnaud Delacour on the pony. The improving son of Tapit galloped strongly, picking it up the second time around.
“We’ve always been high on this horse,” Delacour said. “He was just doing things so much easier than the others. It was like it was nothing for him. The question mark is this will be his first time at Pimlico, which can be a tricky track. They have to like the distance, we haven’t been longer that 1 1/16 miles.”
Divining Rod is owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who own the barn out of which Delacour trains. The barn has seven paddocks, two round pens, and a new walking ring. The Preakness would mark the Jacksons’ return to the scene where their beloved Barbaro broke down in 2006.
Zayat and Justin arrived at the barn several hours before the race, with Zayat exuding tremendous confidence, believing that American Pharoah truly was special and was going to take the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“I say that out of confidence, not arrogance, because I know how humbling this game is,” Zayat said. “You want my honest opinion? This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse, and between his condition and his demeanor he’s coming into the race as good as ever.
“This morning I’m giving my kids a pep talk. I told them, ‘We got what we want; we got the Derby. It’s historical and now it’s time to enjoy it and have fun.’ But I think there’s even more pressure this time. Honest to God, I know it sounds corny, but it’s the truth. I want this more for the sport than for me. A game with no star is not a game, and you need stars. And God knows how much we need one in horse racing. I want it as a fan of the sport. Everywhere I go, people are telling me how much they’re rooting for American Pharoah.”
As Zayat spoke, the skies that had been sunny all afternoon were turning dark, and there were thunderstorms predicted for late in the afternoon.
“I prefer either a dry track or a monsoon.” Zayat said. “A drying out track is the worst. I don’t have good memories of this track. This homestretch is an eternity for me (he said mainly referring to Bodemeister getting caught late by I’ll Have Another in 2012).”
Standing nearby in the entrance to the stakes barn was Simon Callaghan, trainer of Firing Line, who three times has tested Baffert horses – Dortmund twice and American Pharoah once – and despite giving both all they could handle in dogfights to the wire, came up on the losing end each time.
Zayat said to Callaghan, “Good luck, Simon; the sport needs that rivalry. I have a lot of respect for you and your father (who was a trainer in England), and, honestly, if it’s not me I hope it’s you. It’s unbelievable how short a period of time you’ve been here and have already run second in the Kentucky Derby. I’m really happy for you, seriously, with all my heart.”
Most of the horses were saddled in the indoor paddock, and as they headed out to the track, the rain began, getting harder and harder. The track had been sealed before the race, and when they harrowed it just before post time, one would have thought the rain was going to hold off. But before long, sheets of heavy rain pelted the track.
Baffert, his wife Jill, and son Bode took their usual place in front of a TV screen near the entrance to the paddock. The wind began to pick up, with an occasional gust blowing the rain into the paddock. Soon it was a deluge outside.
Jill began getting nervous, especially with the thunder and lightning and with American Pharoah breaking from the inside post and the TV revealing deep standing water right along the rail.
“It’s a river on the rail; that’s not right,” she said. “If he can overcome this and still win, he really is something special.”
Baffert added, “That wind is really sharp. This changes the whole picture. But it’s too late now, we can’t change it.” Baffert even starting thinking about the ear plugs he puts in American Pharoah’s ears getting waterlogged.
Although Baffert and Jill were concerned with the turn of events, it was up to 10-year-old Bode to instill the confidence everyone had just a few minutes earlier. Bode’s concern with the heavy rain was much more simple. “How are we going to get to the winner’s circle?” he asked. Jill stayed as far away from that question as possible, not wanting to go there.
Conditions got so bad and so dangerous the fans in the infield had to be evacuated. The scene that just a few minutes earlier was filled with electricity and anticipation had now turned to mayhem. People caught outside resorted to holding folding chairs over their head.
As the field loaded in the gate, Jill, visibly upset, cradled her hands against her face, as if dreading the possibilities that could ensue.
Although American Pharoah was breaking a couple of paths off the rail, he broke to the outside and bumped with Dortmund, who knocked him back down on the rail. Victor Espinoza got him settled quickly, but he was taken on immediately by Mr. Z., as the pair sprinted well clear of the field, with Espinoza brilliantly easing American Pharoah several paths out on to a better part of the track.
Meanwhile on the far outside, Firing Line stumbled badly and awkwardly coming out of the gate and got hung wide and never was able to reach contention.
As they headed into the first turn, the opening quarter split of :22.90 brought a bit more concern over such a quagmire. Baffert felt a little better after a half in :46.49, still a bit on the fast side. “They slowed it down a little bit,” he said.
Down the backstretch, Baffert was happy when American Pharoah shook free of Mr. Z and opened up by almost three lengths. “Dortmund (in third about five lengths back) is running good,” Baffert said. “They’re both running good.”
But around the far turn, the scene changed when Divining Rod came charging up along the inside and began closing the gap on American Pharoah, with Dortmund trying to make a run on the outside and taking over second briefly. But he could never sustain the run and dropped out of contention. But Divining Rod was still running strongly and closing in.
“Come on, boy,” Baffert urged American Pharoah. “Who is that, the seven?” he asked, referring to Divining Rod. “The seven is right there, too. Uh, oh, come on Pharoah. Come on Pharoah.”
As if on cue, American Pharoah, as is his custom, threw his ears up as if letting his followers know he had everything well under control. Espinoza, unlike the Derby, never had to go to the whip, merely waving it a couple of times, as American Pharoah bounded away to a four-length lead at the eighth pole, with Baffert now breaking out in a big smile, knowing Pharoah had it wrapped up. He continued to pour it on, winning as he pleased by seven lengths, while running straight as the proverbial arrow the entire length of the stretch.
Tale of Verve, at 28-1, fulfilled Dallas Stewart’s expectations by rallying from last to finish second, a length over Divining Rod, who drifted out in the final furlong. It was another 7 1/2 lengths back to Dortmund in fourth. The time for the 1 3/16 miles was 1:58.46.
“What a horse,” an elated and noticeably choked up Baffert said as soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line. Jill was in tears. Baffert turned to his son and asked, “Bode, you mind getting wet?”
Inside the paddock, Firing Line’s owner Arnold Zetcher and Callaghan were disappointed their colt never got a chance to run his race.
“It’s too bad, we were 20 minutes away from having a dry track,” Zetcher said. “But as long as he comes out of it well; that’s what’s important now. American Pharoah looked awfully good.”
Zetcher then said to Callaghan, “Just throw it out and move on to the next one,” to which Callaghan replied, “Yeah, I think we’ll get him back home and give him a little break. He seems fine.”
A few yards away, a beaming Dallas Stewart and owner Chuck Fipke were feeling great about their horse’s performance. This was the third time in three years that Stewart had run second in a classic race with a big longshot, having previously finished second in the Kentucky Derby with Golden Soul and Commanding Curve.
Zayat, as he was following the Derby, was euphoric. The first person to come over to him and give him a hug and kiss was Wayne Lukas.
Espinoza, who rode a brilliant race, was seen emptying water out of his boot. He admitted he couldn’t see much with all the water in his eyes, but was focusing only on American Pharoah. Espinoza will now become the first jockey ever to attempt a Triple Crown sweep with three horses.
So, let the comparisons with Seattle Slew continue. It’s still too early from a historical standpoint to actually make that comparison, but there is one person who has the credentials to do so – Paula Turner, former wife of Slew’s trainer Billy Turner. Paula rode Slew and gave him his early training on the farm and then came to New York with him to introduce “Huey” (Slew’s nickname) to the track, giving him his first racetrack gallop.
“I came back from that gallop and told Billy, ‘He’s the one. This is the one you’ve been waiting for,’” Paula said. “American Pharoah is the only horse who’s reminded me of Huey's authoritative command of a race; just daring anyone to come near. His ‘try and run with me if you can’ show took me right back to Huey. Watching the race, I commented, ‘Now, that’s authority;’ so reminiscent (of Seattle Slew). American Pharoah looked like he wanted to run off after the finish, which Huey also did when horses tried passing him afterward.”
On the winner’s podium, Joanne Zayat asked her husband if he was awake, reminding him that this was not a dream, but reality.
And the reality is this: American Pharoah is the first Derby and Preakness winner since Spectacular Bid to fit the profile of a Triple Crown winner. The naming of champions didn’t begin until the late 1930s, and since then, six of the seven Triple Crown winners – Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, and Whirlaway all were 2-year-old champions (either in the Daily Racing Form or Turf and Sport Digest polls), as, of course, was American Pharoah, who is the first juvenile champion since Spectacular Bid 36 years ago to attempt a Triple Crown sweep.
In addition, Triple Crown winners Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, War Admiral, and Gallant Fox all won the Belmont Stakes wire to wire. Even the late-running Whirlaway was sent to the lead early in the race. As everyone is well aware, American Pharoah certainly fits that profile as well.
“God willing, he comes out of his race well, and we could be talking about history,” Zayat said.
Baffert talked with reverence about American Pharoah, and one could tell the deep feelings he has for the colt. “You feed him carrots and he’s like a pet,” he said. “Usually they’re like athletes, they want to get it on, but he’s just the sweetest horse. He’s spoiled to death. It was a magical moment watching him come down that stretch.”
There’s that word magical again, woven like some magnificent tapestry, telling the story of American Pharoah – from being out of a mare named for Zayat’s youngest daughter Emma (Littleprincessemma) to the glowing reports coming out of Vinery when he was a weanling to Zayat buying him back while at Disneyland to more glowing reports from the McKathan Brothers Farm where he received his early training and where he put on a performance to remember at the Zayats’ breeze show to his early sensational works for Baffert to his spectacular victory in the grade I Del Mar Futurity while still a maiden.
He was held in such regard as a baby, Justin put a picture of him as a weanling on his phone.
And that was all before this year when the fairy tale continued to unfold and is now only one chapter away from being completed. It has become much more than the story about a brilliant horse on the threshold of immortality. It is about family and friends and destiny and sharing this special gift that has been bestowed on the Zayat and Baffert families, whose relationship has grown over the years.
Following the winner’s circle festivities and the press conference, a mentally exhausted Zayat decided to just go back to the RV, parked behind the grandstand, and relax.
“Later, we’ll go to the barn to see him and say goodbye,” he told Joanne.
Does history await American Pharoah and the Zayats and Bafferts, and Victor Espinoza? The racing world and many outside that realm will have three weeks to contemplate whether this is the horse the Triple Crown gods have been waiting for the past 37 years.
But for all those close to American Pharoah, they can only echo the words of Kevin McKathan following the Preakness, who summed it all up perfectly and succinctly when he said, “This is a life-changing horse.”