The Females Behind Pharoah

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “You can tell the strength of a nation by the women behind its men.”

The nation that is American Pharoah currently rules the racing world and perhaps even the sports world and beyond. It has grown from strength to strength into a cultural phenomenon with loyal subjects from coast to coast and around the globe.

Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin, who is also the stable’s racing manager, have been the spokesmen for American Pharoah through the media and Twitter. But for the female members of the Zayat family, their voice has not been heard, despite all the emotions that have run rampant this year. Few families are as close-knit as the Zayats, and it is only appropriate that the women have their chance to discuss this journey of a lifetime.

After all it was their oldest daughter Ashley who inspired the name of their first grade I winner and her younger sister Emma who inspired the name of American Pharoah’s dam. And we all know that their mother, Joanne, inspires Ahmed. It is safe to say that because no man will dare to admit it’s not true.

We are all well aware by now that Jill Baffert is the “woman behind the man” in the Baffert family, but it is time to meet the “women” of the Zayat family.

When Ashley got engaged on Aug. 14 of last year, she had to figure that would be the highlight of her year, at least until her wedding day. But little did she know that event would only be the beginning of a magical journey that would change the lives of her entire family and propel them to unimaginable heights.

For the past 10 years, a major portion of the Zayats’ lives have been centered around Thoroughbred racing, during which time they have experienced more highs and lows than most owners do in their entire life. But the Zayats’ story would transcend the Sport of Kings in 2015 and turn their family into national celebrities.

Ashley, one of four children, along with Justin, Benjamin, and Emma, was in the ninth grade when Ahmed Zayat decided to get into Thoroughbred racing, buying his first 18 horses. She didn’t know much about the sport other than watching races on TV and going to the Meadowlands on occasion. It certainly wasn’t something she thought would bring the family even closer together than they were or something they would get involved in to the degree that they have.

When Ashley became engaged to Glenn Weiss last August, an event had taken place only five days earlier that appeared to have played little significance in her life. The Zayats’ highly touted 2-year-old, American Pharoah, who, by all reports, was something very special, ran in a maiden race on Del Mar’s Polytrack surface. Sent off as the 7-5 favorite, he fell apart in the paddock, unable to handle the noise, and tired badly to finish a well-beaten fifth.

The Zayats, and everyone associated with the colt were crushed and bewildered. After all, American Pharoah not only was bred by the Zayats and was a son of their own stallion, Pioneerof the Nile, he was out of the mare Littleprincessemma, who was named for their youngest daughter, Emma.

Ashley knew how special that was to her family, because the horse that had been named after her, Point Ashley, became the family’s first grade I winner when she captured the 2006 Del Mar Debutante for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza. Another of their grade I winners was Justin Phillip, named after Justin.

Ashley was married on Dec. 21. The next month the family went to the Eclipse Awards to accept American Pharoah’s trophy as champion 2-year-old; then they went on vacation; then the Triple Crown trail began and shortly after the Preakness, Justin graduated from New York University. Those events alone had made 2015 a memorable year for the Zayat family. But by the time Justin graduated, the Zayats’ lives were already spinning out of control, thanks to American Pharoah, who showed that his maiden fiasco was a total aberration by going undefeated since, culminating with a victory in the Kentucky Derby. As Joanne understated, “It’s been a crazy, wild year.”

No one deserved a Derby victory more than the Zayats, who had suffered through second-place finishes at Churchill Downs in 2009, 2011, and 2012, and lost the overwhelming Derby favorite, Eskendereya, to injury a week before the 2010 Run for the Roses. In 2012, they not only finished second in the Derby with Bodemeister, but second in the Preakness with the same horse, and second in the Belmont Stakes with Paynter, whose life they would eventually help save by persevering, despite the high costs, after the colt suffered a series of maladies that nearly killed him. Ahmed Zayat refused to give up hope when all looked bleak, and the horse responded by refusing to die.

So, here we are in August, 2015. American Pharoah is a national hero after becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Triple Crown and then following that up with an electrifying victory in the Haskell Invitational before a record crowd of over 60,000 at Monmouth Park.

“We’re all blessed to be part of this,” Ashley said. “To have people tell us how much the horse means to them and all the letters we get. I cry reading some of them. It’s so rewarding to see that he has changed people’s lives and brought smiles to their faces. One letter was from a grandfather saying how he watched the Triple Crown with his grandson and through that they’ve developed a relationship they never had before. It’s just beautiful to hear these stories.”

Ashley vividly remembers the early days when the name American Pharoah was on the lips of everyone who had come in contact with him, especially during his early training at the McKathan brothers’ farm in Ocala.

“I remember Justin calling me after watching him breeze at the farm and saying, ‘Oh my God, you better think of a good name for this one.’” Ashley recalled. “This was right before we were naming all the horses. Naming all the babies together is like our family thing. We sit down and the fans will also send in names and we’ll name a few from their suggestions. If we think it’s going to be a good one we want to name him or her after someone we highly respect. We saw the name American Pharoah on the roster of names from the fans that had been submitted by a woman named Marsha Baumgartner. She gets full credit for naming him. We actually were on winter break in Egypt visiting my grandparents and it was just so appropriate. Here we were in Egypt and having just come from visiting the pyramids and we were all on a major high being there.

“From the beginning you have a gut feeling about a horse and the gut feeling we had from the get-go was that this was a special horse. Sometimes you think a horse is special and it doesn’t turn out that way. But we were all obsessed about this horse right from the beginning. In 2013 and ’14 we didn’t have anything in the Derby and my dad said, ‘I promise you we’re going to have something next year. Not only are we going to have one horse, we’re going to have a few horses.’ That’s how strong that crop was.”

Despite all the rave reviews, Ashley refused to get over confident. She tries to avoid having gut feelings and would rather remain skeptical until she sees them run.

“There’s just so many factors involved, like luck and keeping them healthy,” she said. “What race should we put him in? Is the trainer in love with him? I wait until they get to the track and speak for themselves.

“My dad kept telling us, ‘This is something special; you better get excited.’ One of the horses we had really been excited about was Eskendereya, and my dad said, ‘If you think Eskendereya was special just wait until you see this one.’ With Eskendereya it’s always been, ‘What if? What would have been? What if he had won the Derby? What would the next year have been like?’ We’ve been in the industry for only 10 years and there have been so many close calls and so many times of being the bridesmaid; so many letdowns and crying and wanting it so badly. I guess it just wasn’t our day then and we had to wait for our time to come.”

With the Zayats sitting out the 2014 Triple Crown, they watched as California Chrome became the sport’s latest Cinderella horse, sweeping to victories in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes. The California-bred with the bargain basement pedigree looked ready to make history in the Belmont Stakes.

“When California Chrome was on his journey to become the Triple Crown winner, my husband, then my boyfriend, said, ‘Don’t you want California Chrome to win?’ Ashley said. “I told him, ‘A part of me says yes, because the industry needs it, but I just want it to be us, so we have to wait till next year; next year it will be us.’ And sure enough it was. I didn’t even remember that conversation, but two weeks before the Belmont when the pressure was building up, my husband reminded me of that story and said what if my wishful thinking comes true?”

Ashley remembers how crushed the family was when American Pharoah suffered an injury several days before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, forcing Bob Baffert to withdraw him from the race.

“We were all so excited,” she said. “We had our tickets and we had a party of about 70 guests coming, and when he got hurt and was withdrawn from the race, we were all so disappointed we didn’t even come. My dad canceled the trip. To think we were going to go and win our first Breeders’ Cup race ever and be so ecstatic and have basically everyone in the industry on board and touting him for the Derby, only to pull out and wonder if he was ever going to come back. But we did right by him by giving him plenty of time and he did right by us.”

Even now, Joanne says the Kentucky Derby seems so surreal. “I’m still in shock we won the Derby,” she said. “As they were coming down the stretch, you can read my lips on the video saying, ‘They can’t do this to us again; we can’t have another second.’ I didn’t even see the horse cross the finish line. I closed my eyes, because I was convinced we were going to get nipped at the wire again and I wasn’t going to be able to function. The next thing I know, Justin is picking me up, shouting ‘We won, we won; open your eyes.’ I was just sure we were going to be so close, yet so far away again.

“I’m normally always nervous, but for some bizarre reason I wasn’t nervous at all before the Preakness. I think because the Derby was so emotional, and Bob told us, ‘Every time I’ve won the Derby I’ve won the Preakness, so don’t worry about it.’ Ahmed said to me on Preakness day, ‘I either want a dry fair track or a monsoon.’ We’re standing there and the skies opened up and there was a crack of thunder, and I turned to him and said, ‘You asked for a monsoon and here it is.’ Pharoah was in all his glory romping in that mess.”

Ashley recalls the morning of the Belmont Stakes. Unable to drive in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, the family, as is their custom, stayed overnight in RVs parked in a lot near the stakes barn. Ahmed said his morning prayers and then friends and family members would stop by, some grabbing a bite to eat from the spread of bagels, cream cheese, lox, whitefish, whitefish salad, and pastries. The nerves and the excitement level were high, especially with Ahmed worried about the condition of the track after overnight rains.

But as the day wore on and the track dried out completely and turned fast, Ahmed became more and more confident, and no one’s confidence is more contagious than Ahmed Zayat’s.

“The morning of the Belmont, my dad was nervous about the track, but then as the day went on he began getting really confident, and all of us began getting confident,” Ashley recalled. “I felt that we were going to win, but then I’d get nervous and start second-guessing myself. My feelings kept going back and forth. It’s like when you go on a roller coaster and you’re getting to the top of the first drop. You’re both nervous and excited and you know what’s going to happen, but you still get that adrenalin rush.

“In the paddock in was mayhem. People were yelling and cheering. I was so nervous about the noise for the horse. We started to head in and my dad turned to my mom and said, ‘Get ready to be the owner of a Triple Crown winner.’ When he said that, the hairs on my arm stood up. I thought, ‘This is really going to happen.’ I’m not just saying or hoping it’s going to happen; it actually is going to happen.’ ”

And it did happen, as Belmont Park erupted; it’s hallowed halls and grandstand shaking like they’ve never shook before. Only Secretariat’s Belmont came close to duplicating the outpouring of emotion and bedlam that ensued. But this stood alone for unrestrained jubilation.

“We all started crying,” Ashley said. “There were no words to describe it. My body was shaking. It was something I wish I could have recorded. I have never felt a grandstand shake like that. The only time that came close was when Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was that and more. It was total uproar and elation. It was a fantastic feeling that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again.”

For Ashley, a good deal of what had transpired didn’t really sink in until they went to Churchill Downs following the Triple Crown to honor American Pharoah, who was paraded before the fans. It was after that all died down that the enormity of it all hit her; not only just the Triple Crown adventure, but all the other special events that accompanied it over the past six months.

“After we had gone to Churchill to honor the horse we were on the plane going home and my mom and dad and Glenn and I were talking and finally were able to take a deep breath,” Ashley said. “It hit me then, ‘Oh my God, this year has literally been the craziest year. I got engaged at Del Mar, we were married on Dec. 21, and I had just moved. The minute I settled in I was on a plane to New York and then was making arrangements to fly to Arkansas to see him run. I knew then this was really about to happen and I better fasten my seatbelt, because this is going to be a crazy ride over the next few months.’ ”

Of course, through it all was the family bonding, not only through American Pharoah’s victories, but all the negative publicity in certain publications and the legal hassles and accusations during the Triple Crown that seem to accompany any successful person who achieves great things and finds himself in the public spotlight.

“This really has brought us together, because we are now part of an exclusive club and there are so few people who know what it feels like to be part of that club,” Ashley said. “This journey has been mostly ups, but there have been downs, and during those down times it’s your family who you rely on and lean on. It’s your family that supports you and stands up for you and reminds you every day we’re here for a reason. The good parts and the historical parts of this journey have been so much more meaningful because of the hardships that came with it. No one publicizes how, when you’re up, some people try to bring you down. That’s just the nature of the game and the nature of some people, that they don’t want you to be successful. But on the other hand, there are so many people who want to be part of history and want to be on the winning team. We didn’t want this just for ourselves, for Ahmed Zayat to check off another success story. My family is part of the younger generation of racing and we want to help revive something that many feel is dying.

“When I saw how packed Monmouth Park was with over 60,000 fans, I thought, ‘Is this the fourth leg of the Triple Crown? This was the way racing was portrayed in movies like ‘Secretariat’ and ‘Seabiscuit.’ The glamour and the prestige came back to the sport.”

Joanne said, “These races take a lot out of me. We came back from the Haskell and I was wiped out. And I don’t do anything. I don’t know how he does it. He’s done it in the slop, he’s done it in the sun, he’s done it in the humidity, and he’s done it on seven different tracks. He’s like a freak of nature.”

In reflecting upon this amazing experience, Ashley realizes there are so many factors involved, and how important it is to keep persevering through the rough times and maintaining an optimistic outlook even in the face of adversity.

“You have to keep pushing yourself and keep trying,” she said. “There’s definitely an element of luck involved, and there’s no doubt that somebody has been looking out for us who has a major plan. But it takes so much dedication and hard work. Success is like an iceberg. People only see a small part of it. But beneath the surface there is a billion times more failure before you get there. That’s why none of us could control our emotions. When we go to the track now, people come up to us and want to have their picture taken with us and tell us how much American Pharoah has touched them. It was the same way with Paynter when people were affected by him and his struggle and got so much hope from his story.”

Joanne said has always enjoyed the anonymity of their summers at Del Mar, where, unlike back home in New Jersey, no one knows her and she can “go out without makeup and put my hair in a ponytail.” But that no longer is the case.

“There is no more anonymity,” she said. “We go out to a restaurant, they know us. We’re in the supermarket, they know us. It’s really been quite life changing.”

As Ashley said, “American Pharoah is really the people’s horse now. They care about him and want to know his minute by minute activity. I live in Miami and I was in the supermarket and someone came up to me and said, ‘I recognize you from Twitter.’ I was like ‘Oh my goodness, I’m in my gym clothes.’ But I don’t think it will truly hit us that this happened until next year when his accomplishments will really sink in. The next time, if and when it ever happens again, that 37-year anticipation won’t be there.

“This was meant to be, with us, and meant to be in Bob’s barn, and Victor was meant to ride him. After all, Zayat Stables, Bob Baffert, and Victor Espinoza did something together. As a team we won out first grade I with Point Ashley named after me. It is so significant that that was our first grade I victory and the same team won the Triple Crown together. I just don’t believe in coincidences. It’s a dream team, and there are so many parts to this machine we call American Pharoah.”

Joanne is amazed at all the pictures they receive of American Pharoah, drawn or painted by children. “He really has captured people’s hearts and minds,” she said. “They just want to be with him, playing with him and petting him. He has such a great personality.”

After hearing so many people refer to her family as racing royalty, Ashley and Justin now call Joanne Penny Chenery, sometimes addressing her simply as “Penny.” Ashley considers American Pharoah their most expensive pet, because of his amazing disposition. Her favorite photo is of her father and American Pharoah lying in the stall right next to each other, which she has had framed.

“He’s such a happy horse, which is why for the next few months it’s our job and responsibility to share him,” she said. “It wouldn’t be fair not to. He loves being around people and he loves to run.”

Ahmed and Joanne have watched all their children grow up being exposed to racing. “Emma is 14 now and she was only four when we started in the industry,” Joanne said. “She is my quiet one, but she’s gotten her own notoriety. They call her Pharoah at school; it’s a big joke. She’s just starting high school and someone told her, ‘You’re going to have it so easy, because everybody knows you already. You don’t have to introduce yourself.’ ”

The American Pharoah mystique has attracted a number of celebrities to the horse’s barn and to see him race, such as Julia Roberts, Al Pacino, Bill Murray, President Clinton, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. People show up at the track wearing pharaoh headgear and other pieces of American Pharoah apparel and carrying signs and posters.

“The amount of pride it brings us is indescribable,” Ashley said. “He’s just touched so many people. We’re part of something we never could have imagined.”

But with the Zayats, it is all about family first. “Thank God, we’ve been very blessed,” Joanne said. “The kids are pretty grounded, and they realize that all these great things are only great if you have a great family and you have your health, because if you don’t, none of it means anything.”

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