The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Owner Ahmed Zayat
In just five years, Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables has had a major impact in the Kentucky Derby. His first two runners, Z Fortune and Z Humor, were far back in the 2008 Derby won by Big Brown, but Pioneerof the Nile carried his powder blue and yellow colors to a second-place finish behind Mine That Bird in 2009 and Nehro ran second to Animal Kingdom in 2011.
Two years ago, his homebred Giant’s Causeway colt Eskendereya came to Churchill Downs as the pre-race favorite following an overpowering 9 3/4-length victory in the Wood Memorial. On the Sunday before the 2010 Derby, however, Eskendereya suffered a soft-tissue injury and had to be retired to stud.
Zayat, a 49-year-old native of Cairo, Egypt, now living in the United States, is back again with a strong contender and possible Derby favorite in Bodemeister, a Bob Baffert-trained son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker whose 9 1/2-length Arkansas Derby victory was by most accounts the strongest performance by a 3-year-old this year.
Zayat is enjoying the atmosphere at Churchill Downs, watching with son Justin as their horses train each morning, sending out Tweets (@ZayatStables), and posting videos at www.zayatstables.com. The Paulick Report caught up with Zayat on Tuesday afternoon.
You’re a very animated person. What have you been doing since the Arkansas Derby to keep calm?
I couldn’t keep calm even if I wanted to. In my opinion Bodemeister’s Arkansas Derby was an absolute breakthrough. When Secret Circle came to him, I felt he might get passed, but he loved the challenge and his turn of foot was absolutely amazing. He reminds me a little bit of Eskendereya. He wants to sit on the competition and when he sees them he finds another gear. The gallop out was strong. In the paddock he was as calm as a cucumber, and it was his first time shipping for a race. He does have some of his sire’s temperament. I was concerned at Oaklawn Park because of the way they saddle inside in the paddock and then go out into the infield (for the walking ring)
How does this feel different for you than 2010, when Eskendereya came here as the favorite?
There is always this lingering question mark in my mind: What if? I couldn’t get myself to watch that year’s Kentucky Derby for two months. I loved Eskendereya’s sire, Giant’s Causeway. I loved the way this colt had been training. He had a special mind. He loved to trash his competition. In my heart of hearts I think he could have won the Derby and even become a Triple Crown winner because of the way he’s bred and the way he galloped out. It will always be a question in my head: What if?
What have you learned since you ran your first Derby starters in 2008?
I have to say, with all honesty, this game can make you very humble. Bill Mott once said to me horses will make a liar out of you. They can train great in morning and then do just the opposite in the afternoon. Let me tell you something. In his second race (which Bodemeister won by 9 1/4 lengths), Bob (trainer Baffert) bet on his other horse (Stirred Up, who finished third as the favorite).
I’ve learned that we have been very fortunate to have many runners that belong in this race. I have only been an owner since 2006. I feel that I’ve been very, very blessed to have this many thrills and runs. I have zero regrets. I’m coming to the Derby this year with a new sense of entitlement, that I don’t need to win or to improve on my second-place finishes. I’m just trying to enjoy this opportunity.
One thing I learned from Bob Baffert, it’s 90% talent and 10% luck just to get to the Kentucky Derby. Once they open the gates, it’s 90% luck and 10% talent. I am very conscious of that. Once you put the saddle on, it’s totally out of our hands. I might as well enjoy the moment and have fun with it. It’s the prime event in our business and I feel very fortunate. It is a genuine thrill.
You finished second twice with horses that came here somewhat under the radar, Pioneerof the Nile and Nehro. Does anyone remember who finished second?
No, of course not! I kind of felt that I got my redemption from Mine That Bird beating Pioneerof the Nile because Soul Warrior beat Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby. I think it’s very important that owners try to race their horses, and Nehro is doing well this year and I hope to continue to run him as a 5-year-old. Unfortunately, Pioneerof the Nile I had to retire.
So you didn’t win the 2009 Kentucky Derby but won that year’s West Virginia Derby. Fair trade?
Are you kidding? But you can win a $5,000 claiming or a Grade 1, and the feeling can be the same. Winning any kind of race is a fantastic experience.
Did you retain any interest in Eskendereya, and what do you hear about his first foal crop, born this year?
Yes, I have breeding rights, and the people at Taylor Made say the foals are absolutely beautiful. They look the part. I believe Stonestreet (which bought majority interest for stud purposes) and Barbara Banke have bred a tremendous book of mares to him. But Pioneerof the Nile (standing at Vinery) is throwing crazy good babies. And the one that really has surprised me is Maimonides (by Vindication, standing at Vinery Florida) is also having incredibly good-looking foals. Alan Cohen of Arindel Farms has bred 25 stakes caliber mares to him. Maimonides was a freak of freaks as far as speed goes.
Your first two Derby horses were Z Fortune and Z Humor,10th and 14th in the 2008 Derby. Did that convince you to stop using the “Z” in naming horses?
No way. We still have Z Dager, and I have ZZ Warrior, and Z Camelot.
Can you tell me the story of how Bodemeister got his name?
I actually try to name some of my promising colts toward people I know and love. Brad Weisbord was working for me, and we originally named this horse Bradelberry – it’s a nickname that Brad’s mother called him. One day last year, Bob (Baffert) called me and said, “I’ve never asked you do this, but I want to change the name of this horse.” I said, “OK, I’ll think about it.”
Bob thinks it’s a bad thing to name a horse after people, and he would not have wanted me to name him after his son, Bode. But Bob is not just a trainer, but a friend, and we love his son. So I named him Bodemeister without telling him. When he found out, he was kind of surprised, but he was very happy when he turned out to be such a good horse.
Brad is a good guy and I wanted to honor him. After he left there were no hard feelings at all. When Brad called Bob about it, Bob told him the horse got very fast after they changed the name!