Zayat at the Haskell: “I Was Extremely Nervous”

American Pharoah's owner ponders at least two more runs for his champion.

Photo by Holly Tonini

The horses were about to enter the starting gate for the $1.75 million William Hill Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Ahmed Zayat, the Teaneck-based owner of American Pharoah, was anxious. Would his colt — the first Thoroughbred in 37 years to win all three legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown — let down the crowd of 60,983, the largest ever to attend a horse race in the state of New Jersey.

“I was extremely nervous,” says Zayat, looking back at the August 2 race, which American Pharoah won handily. “I know how people in New Jersey have been rallying around this horse, and talking about him. I didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Zayat, 52, was bidding for his second Haskell victory, having previously won his home state’s signature race in 2012.

Earlier, when the champ arrived at the track, fans scrambled to take pictures. The handsome bay colt carried himself like a star. He’s not that big for a Thoroughbred, but American Pharoah has an undeniable presence.

Zayat says the horse typically conducts himself in a docile, intelligent manner. “He has such a personality that you can’t help but fall in love with. He’s smart and he’s kind … He has a different aura.”

But on race day, Zayat was a bit concerned. The colt had been “amped up” and “on edge” throughout the week. Such behavior could translate to a subpar performance.

As post-time neared, Zayat, his oldest son, Justin, and trainer Bob Baffert headed for the champion’s stall. There, Zayat petted American Pharoah on the back, gave him a kiss, and whispered in his ear, “go get ‘em.”

Zayat sensed the colt had calmed. “I put my hand on his shoulder, and I immediately got a goosebump,” says Zayat. “My hair was standing up. It’s weird. Like feeling electricity between us.”

Bill Murray, one of several notables on hand (others included Richie Sambora and Governor Chris Christie), gave the “Riders up!” command, and jockey Victor Espinoza climbed aboard American Pharoah. The horses made their way to the track, with “Born To Run” playing over the loudspeakers — a Haskell tradition.

The Zayats headed to their second-floor box seats. They were facing considerable risk. Though American Pharoah is insured, the Zayat family could lose a potential fortune if the horse were to suffer a debilitating injury. They had sold a majority interest in his stallion rights to Coolmore, an Irish-based stud farm. Zayat is keeping a percentage. (“I’ve always retained at least 25 percent of my horses,” he says.) Conservative industry estimates put American Pharoah’s stud fee at $150,000. If he covers 150 mares in the first year, a 25 percent stake could yield $5.625 million. Calculate the fees over multiple years, and suddenly, the Haskell purse seems like tip money.

Former New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca — a Thoroughbred aficionado who has spent the past six years as an expert commentator for the horse racing network TVG — salutes Zayat for keeping American Pharaoh in training when others might have cashed out.

“Sometimes people will take the money,” says Lo Duca. “It’s life. But he’s a true horse racing guy. You’ve got to give him credit for keeping American Pharoah on the racetrack.”

Finally, it was post time. The crowd roared as the gates sprang open. American Pharoah settled in second place, just behind Competitive Edge. Early on, the champ looked comfortable.

The horses headed to the backstretch, disappearing from view. Zayat watched the big screen, as American Pharoah continued to trail Competitive Edge. With 3/8 of a mile remaining, Espinoza gave Pharoah his cue. In the blink of an eye, he took the lead.

Zayat remained focused on the screen — looking for a signal that American Pharoah was in control. “For me, the sign is always his ears,” says Zayat. “If they’re perked, and happy … The minute he does that, I know.”

So does Bob Baffert. As American Pharoah reached the top of the stretch with his ears perked up, the trainer said to Zayat “It’s over.”

Justin Zayat could hardly contain his excitement. “Unleash the beast!” he yelled repeatedly.

But instead of unleashing the beast, Espinoza grabbed hold of the reins and geared him down. Monmouth Park was in a frenzy. American Pharoah crossed the finish line 2¼ lengths in front — a slender margin hardly indicative of his dominance.

The Zayat family exchanged hugs and kisses as they rushed to the winner’s circle, where chaos awaited. Cameras everywhere. Media everywhere. People everywhere. Security personnel attempted to control the scene. It was a struggle.

Later, the principals were whisked away for the post-race news conference. Almost all of the questions were about American Pharoah’s future. The aim is for the champ to finish his career in America’s richest horse race — the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 31 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. After that, it’s off to the breeding shed.

“I dread the day that he’s going to retire,” says Zayat. “He occupies so much space in my mind and my heart. It’s going to be really hard.”

American Pharoah will run in at least one more race before his final bow at the Breeders’ Cup. Racing officials confirmed this week that the horse will compete August 29 in the $1.6 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. And according to Zayat, Monmouth Park officials want the horse to return this fall to run in a race that would be created especially for him; The New York Times reported the race could potentially have a $1 million purse.

“I’ve already gotten a letter from them,” says Zayat. “We will do whatever we need to do …  Any distance. Any day. Any time. American Pharoah is so big for our sport, and he’s helping the horse industry in our state. They’ve been very gracious.”

A native of Egypt, Zayat has maintained a residence in Teaneck since 1987 — though he spent significant time in Egypt through 2007, while amassing much of his fortune in the beverage industry. In 2005, he established Zayat Stables in Hackensack. The outfit has experienced tremendous success. Every year since 2006, Zayat Stables has placed in the top 20 in earnings nationwide — leading in that category in 2008. Three times, Zayat horses finished second in the Kentucky Derby — before American Pharoah captured this year’s edition.

Many of the operation’s day-to-day functions have shifted to Justin, 23, a recent NYU graduate who serves as racing and stallion manager. Fans in the Haskell crowd called out for Justin to pose for pictures. “People call me ‘horse boy’ now!” says Justin, laughing about his newfound fame. “But it’s all about American Pharoah. Everyone just loves this horse.”

Longtime NBC racing analyst Randy Moss believes American Pharoah compares favorably with other Thoroughbred legends.

“We have a tendency … to sort of romanticize famous athletes of past generations,” says Moss. “Like when you see a great baseball player today and someone wants to compare them to Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams … (But) I think American Pharoah deserves to be placed in the same conversation with all-time greats like Seattle Slew and Affirmed.”

Luckily, race fans will still have several chances to see for themselves—possibly even in New Jersey.

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