It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.
There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.
How did they get there?
It’s an unusual story.
Although most Jews in Egypt left the country in the 1950s — when its ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, made it clear that their lives were likely to be longer, healthier, and happier were they to live them elsewhere — “some affluent Jews stayed, for various reasons,” Joanne Zayat said. That group included Ahmed Zayat’s family.
Mr. Zayat, born in 1962, grew up in Maadi in suburban Cairo. “It was a very mixed neighborhood, with a lot of ex-pats,” Ms. Zayat said. “It looked a lot like here.” To foreshadow a bit — among his pastimes was riding horses at his country club.
When he was 18, Mr. Zayat came to the United States; he went to Harvard, graduated from Yeshiva University, and then earned a joint master’s degree with Harvard and Boston University. A natural entrepreneur, he worked in a number of fields. Among his companies was Al Ahram Beverages, which eventually he sold to Heineken. He did very well.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Zayat retired — or so he said. “He decided he needed to stop traveling,” his wife said. “He wanted to be home with my kids.
“But everyone who knows my husband knows that he can’t be retired for more than 15 seconds. So he decided to take his passion and turn it into a business.”
What did he love? Horses!
“There is a phrase — if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life,” Ms. Zayat said.
“So he decided to go into the horse business.”
Because her husband is a “very zero-to-180 kind of person, he is either not in it or in it to win it,” she said. “So he decided he would go buy some horses.”
Mr. Zayat decided that he would go into the thoroughbred part of the horse business. “When he needs to know something, he becomes engulfed in research,” Ms. Zayat said. “So he learned about it.”
When he began, nine years ago, “he knew a little about horses, but not enough to say at that point, ‘I am a horse maven,’” she continued. “So he started learning about the industry — what it means to buy a horse, at what age to buy a horse, what are the great pedigrees. You want to make sure that your investment is a smart investment.
“He is a very good businessman.”
Looking at the world of thoroughbred racing, Mr. Zayat noticed some things right away. “It is a very old business,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is known as the sport of kings. Many of the families in it are old-time families, like the Vanderbilts.” It’s a high- stakes world.
In some ways, Mr. Zayat’s approach to this old world was new. He uses computer analytics to study all sorts of aspects of breeding, buying, training, and racing horses. He also decided to develop a more broadly based business than most of his competitors. “There are many different elements,” Ms. Zayat said. “There are people who only race horses, who only breed them, people who have only broodmares, people who have only stallions, people who only have babies, or buy babies and sell them.
“He decided that he would have a much more eclectic stable. We have every end — we have broodmares, racing horses, stallions, and babies.”
Thus Zayat Stables was born.
Experts at their stables — and there are many, each specializing in a different part of the same world — decide which horses to keep and which to sell, which to train for turf and which for grass, and which to pair with which trainer. “Each racehorse — every horse — has a personality,” she added. “We have to know what kind of personality it is.”
The stable, only eight years old, started big and has stayed big.
“We bought 25 horses the first time,” Ms. Zayat said. “We probably have one of the biggest stables in North America. We keep the babies — anywhere from 20 to 25 of them — in a stable in Florida, and then they go to the trainers to learn how to become a racehorse.”
Note her use of the word “we.” It is a family business; the Zayats’ oldest child, Justin, 23, “has worked in the business more or less since he was in 10th grade.” He is now graduating from New York University, and “he is our stallion and racing manager. He and my husband work hand-in-hand as far as doing financial analysis and race analysis.” Ms. Zayat works in the business as well.
The next oldest child, Ashley, who is married to Glenn Weiss, owns a costume jewelry business called Point Ashley — named after her family’s first winner, a horse also named Point Ashley, after her. Benjamin is a sophomore at the Frisch School, and Emma is an eighth-grader at Yavneh.
Not only has computerized data analysis changed horse racing, Ms. Zayat said, but so has social media.
Zayat Stables has owned a remarkable number of winners in the nine years since it opened, including three Kentucky Derby runners-up. (It is a mean feat to get a horse into the Derby — they must qualify by winning enough of the right races. It is not a berth that can be bought. “There are probably 30,000 three-year-olds across the world, and only 20 horses make it to the race,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is an honor even to get your horse into the Derby.”) It also has developed and nurtured a strong fan base.
“My husband and Justin are very aware of the fan base,” Ms. Zayat said. “You have to keep them apprised of what’s going on.
“People follow our horses on Twitter and Facebook.
“A couple of years ago, we had a horse named Paynter. He was a wonderful horse, but he got sick after a big race one summer, and we had to take him home and out of racing all summer. We put a tremendous amount of time and energy and finances into him, because we wanted to do right by the horse.
“If you do right by a horse, the horse will do right by you. A horse is not a machine.”
Paynter had many fans, and his illness worried them.
“Our fans were concerned, so we decided that we would keep them apprised,” Ms. Zayat said. “And then Paynter became like a cult. They would send him pictures and letters. It became like Paynter was a person. A group went to visit him, and took pictures of him.”
Paynter came back the next summer, and his fans were overjoyed. “It was like he was the comeback kid. It was a crazy feeling; after the race, people would say to us, ‘You don’t know what Paynter means to me.’
“He really caught the hearts of so many people,” she said.
It’s okay. This story has a happy ending. Paynter is now a stallion at the family’s Winstar Farms in Kentucky, happily siring the new generation of aspiring racehorses.
The Zayats try to give their horses names that have some meaning, “something to do with our lives or our friends,” Ms. Zayat said. “Justin decided that he wanted to do a contest with the fans. They could submit names, and we would pick one.
“A woman from Arkansas submitted American Pharoah.” He’s named in homage to Ahmed Zayat, who was Eyptian to start with and is American now.
This woman, the anonymous horse-namer, clearly was very good with history and allusion, but spelling seems not to have been her strong point. She misspelled Pharaoh, putting the o in front of the a. After the family chose it, “Justin cut and pasted the name from her email, and sent it to the Jockey Club.” (The club vets the names, and rejects those that are already taken or considered somehow offensive.)
“We never thought about it — and now people ask if there is a reason for that spelling,” Ms. Zayat said. “But it was just cut and pasted!”
American Pharoah was particularly dear to the Zayats even before he won the Derby, because he is the stable’s first second-generation winner. “American Pharoah’s dad, Pioneer of the Nile, was our very first home-bred winner, and he was the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby,” Ms. Zayat said. “He was nipped at the wire” –in other words, his victory was snatched from him. “We bred him with Little Princess Emma” — named after the family’s younger daughter — “and American Pharoah got revenge for his father.”
What is it like being Orthodox Jews at the Kentucky Derby? “There is no conflict,” Ms. Zayat said. “Most of our big races are on Saturdays, so we walk to the track.”
They stay at a hotel in Lexington, which is an easy walk on race day, and get kosher meals, including full Shabbat dinners, from a caterer, “but for the Preakness and the Belmont we can’t walk from any hotel, so we rent a trailer.” It’s not just a regular old RV; “It is 45 feet long, has two bathrooms, has a full kitchen and dining area, and sleeps six to eight people.
“Shabbes is still Shabbes. You are still getting gefilte fish for dinner,” she said.
“I think that when you are true to yourself, and you have a strong value system, people respect it.
“This is a free country, and people get that.”
As exciting as she finds horse racing in general, Ms. Zayat considers the Kentucky Derby to be particularly thrilling. “It attracts such a diverse and interesting group of people,” she said. “There are Derby groupies, who spend all year making their hats and getting their outfits together. There are men in floral suits, and women in crazy outfits. There are people who are there either because they are in the industry or because they are Kentuckians, and this is what Kentuckians do.
“Hank Aaron is there, and Bill and Hillary Clinton have been there, and Michael Phelps, and Hugh Hefner. It goes from the president of Visa to Ogden Phipps to people who own stallion farms to racing families to the loved ones of people in the industry.
“We like that it is a family thing for us. We all travel together for all the big races. We go together as much as we can. It is not just a business. We are close to our trainers and their families. That’s part of what makes it nice.
“Yes, it’s big business, but it’s also a humanistic thing. We all know each other’s kids. We have watched each other’s kids grow up.”
“Being in the Derby is the dream of a lifetime,” Ms. Zayat said, but for her, it is a recurring dream. Zayat Stables has had at least one horse in the Derby almost every year since its second year in the business.
May 2, Derby day, “was business as usual,” Ms. Zayat said. They were not the only group to walk from the hotel — traffic and parking both are nightmares, so many people avoid it. “It was a beautiful day. We walked down the street toward Churchill. It’s a pretty stadium. Everyone was trying to sell souvenirs, and security was checking bags, blocking off streets.”
Once they reached the stadium, the Zayats and their guests peeled off from the spectators. “We sit in certain dining rooms. We have viewing boxes. Churchchill is a huge track, and it is very well organized.”
The day goes by. There are 12 races on Derby day, and the Derby itself is the 11th to be run. (It helps with crowd control to have another race after the big one, so not everyone tries to leave at once, Ms. Zayat hypothesizes.) “As the day progresses, there is more time in between each race,” she said. Tension builds.
After the 10th race, “most of the owners go to the barns,” where the staff would have taken the horses out “and start to prep them for the race, to freshen them up,” she said. “They take the horses out, the trainer and the assistant trainers and the grooms and the owners, and you walk with them on the track if you choose to.
“We always walk our horses from the barns all the way around the track to the paddock, where they are saddled.” (“We,” at this race, was “me, my husband, all four children, and our guests, maybe 20, 25, 30 people.”)
“The crowds are roaring as you are passing by. People are yelling ‘Go, American Pharoah, we love you!’ They are trying to pat you. They wave at you. You talk to them. They are screaming and hooting. There are zillions of TV cameras.
“It is fun. It is exciting. It is exhilarating. It is show time.
“Everyone dresses up. I wore a pink suit with a hat. I don’t wear heels, but a lot of people do.
“You go to the paddock, and every owner is in front of his horse. It is jam packed. The horses go into the carrel to be saddled. The jockey, Victor Espinoza, is a great guy. I said, ‘Come on, I promise you a home-cooked meal if you bring this home to me.’ And he said, ‘Mrs. Zayat, just sit back and watch the show.’”
The race finally started. “It is only two minutes — but it is the most exciting two minutes in sports history every year,” Ms. Zayat said.
“They are coming down the stretch, and I see Firing Line and Dortmund coming down, and I see American Pharoah coming, and he’s behind them, and then they are neck and neck, and I say that I can’t. I can’t do this again. I can’t come in second again. The other times we lost at the wire. And I become hysterical. And I start to cry, this emotion of ohmigod.
“And then the next thing I know, I hear that American Pharoah and Victor Espinosa have won the Kentucky Derby.
“And then you go in five seconds from despair to elation. It was an out-of-body experience. It was crazy. And then they hustle you off to get your trophies.
“You don’t know how much time has passed. It could have been a long time. It could have been a short time. I don’t know. They brought us to the podium, they brought us to a cocktail party.
“This is ours. This is a real Zayat horse. There is something really special about it. It’s still surreal now.”
When you look at horses, Ms. Zayat said, there is a lot of science; “numbers, anatomy, genetics,” and much more. But there is also the emotional component. “The objective and the subjective have to meld together.
“And I know that this is the horse.”