Preakness Stakes: American Pharoah owner plots racing dynasty

CNN  — 

Horse owner Ahmed Zayatt stands motionless like a statue as the animal he has bet his life on enters the home stretch of America’s most prestigious race – the Kentucky Derby.

To his right, wife Joanne is lamenting the fact the three-year-old horse – called American Pharoah – is going to be pipped to the winning post as has been the case for Zayat’s runners three times already in the 141-year-old race.

But the threat of Firing Line is held off, victory is sealed and, as the magnitude of the moment hits home, the couple’s son Justin is sick moments later while his parents embrace and jump up and down in celebration.

“Well, my wife was almost having a nervous breakdown,” Zayat tells CNN as he recalls his emotional state following that memorable win.

“Even before the winning line she was projecting second. She started crying, saying ‘They’re going to take it away from us again.’

“My son was so spent emotionally from the week, his stomach turned upside down with fear that he started throwing up.

“It was just insane, the excitement and emotion. I don’t know how to describe it other than this all happened in a flash.”

No wonder the Kentucky Derby has been dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sport,” and one which pocketed the family $1.24 million in winnings, almost doubling the bay colt’s career earnings in the process.

“I’m still on cloud nine or should that be cloud 49! I can’t tell you… it’s just not sunk in yet,” admits Zayat.

“To win the Kentucky Derby is such an incredible accomplishment for me, my family, the stable, for everyone in such a short period of time.

“We’ve had several starts in this race and been very, very close. We’ve had horses leading going into the home stretch where for a fraction of a second I thought we’d get it done. But it was a promised land never reached… until now.”

The Kentucky Derby win means Zayat is a third of the way to completing the notoriously difficult Triple Crown.

On Saturday, American Pharoah – misspelled when its name was officially registered – will again be the favorite to win leg two in the Preakness Stakes.

“I believe that he’ll win the big race,” says Zayat, before quickly realizing his slip, laughing and correcting himself, “run a big race.”

He is adamant he does not want to get carried away about the Preakness or, potentially in due course, of seeing American Pharoah become only the 12th horse to ever complete the U.S. treble.

However, the Egyptian-American is hugely proud that Pharoah is comfortably the most accomplished of the 130 horses he houses at Zayat Stables in a sport he only entered for the first time a decade ago.

It is not quite a rags to riches story, having previously earned $280 million from selling his business Al Ahram Beverages to Heineken Brewing, but his is a meteoric rise in the sport of kings.

When Zayat starts to talk about American Pharoah – a name that is a nod to his dual nationality – his joy is palpable.

“He makes me so comfortable and confident with what he does,” he says.

“It sounds a cliche but he’s like poetry in motion. He glides, it’s like his feet don’t even touch the ground. He’s like a kangaroo and you wouldn’t think he was going that fast unless you look at the clock. It’s just effortless for him.

“Plus he’s an absolute cat. Typically horses like this can be mean and bite. He likes a pat and loves to be kissed.”

American Pharoah has recovered remarkably well from the travails of the Kentucky Derby, returning to proper training on May 7 to prepare for the Preakness.

The horse’s jockey Victor Espinoza is well versed in what it takes to tackle the Triple Crown, having achieved two-thirds of that accolade before coming up just short on California Chrome last year.

Zayat likes to joke he has achieved his own Triple Crown, his horses having finished runner-up in the big three races back in 2012.

As for California Chrome, Zayat admits: “Before anything else I’m a lover of horses. Sport needs its stars and California Chrome came from such modest means that it was the typical Cinderella story. I loved that.”

Zayat’s introduction to horse sport was equestrian riding before he switched his allegiance to racing.

It has become both a business and a hobby for the self-confessed workaholic, and it’s clear that Zayat has immersed himself in horse racing history.

“The last one was over 40 years ago and that’s because horses are built differently now,” says Zayat as he reflects on why the Triple Crown has become such a difficult achievement.

“Stamina is different to the past. They used to run every seven to 10 days. Now there are three to four weeks between races so we’re asking them to step up here.

“So you win and you’re asked two weeks later to run a mile and a quarter against fresh horses. And if that’s not enough three weeks on you have another mile and a half to race against horses that might not have entered either race.

“Then you’re asking them to run in a field of 20 which they’re not used so it’s tight turns and traffic to contend with. So you can have the best horse in the race and get stuck in traffic. So it’s a big ask.”

American Pharoah is wholly aware of his achievement, according to his owner, and was rewarded with some time off, while Zayat marked the occasion by dining out with his family and the trainer Bob Baffert before watching the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.

As for his Kentucky Derby winnings, Zayat plans to invest it in his horse-racing business.

Money, he insists, is not the object – merely a continuation of Pharoah’s winning ways for the 52-year-old owner.

America’s most attended race has already been won, its nearest rival has yet to be run.

Read: American Pharoah chases racing crown

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