Ahmed Zayat has been in the headlines for all the right and wrong reasons in his six years of Thoroughbred ownership. So much so, it’s hard to believe it’s been that short an amount of time.
There has been the constant string of top runners carrying the Zayat Stables colors—Thorn Song, Maimonides, Zensational, Pioneerof the Nile , Eskendereya , and now Nehro, who will go in the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). And there have also been the public disputes with racetrack executives, games of musical chairs with trainers, and the dispute in 2009 with Fifth Third Bank over alleged loan defaults that became quite messy.
None of it has dampened the Egyptian native’s passion for Thoroughbreds. And he seems on the cusp of winning a classic race any time now.
His recent past performances in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) has been exemplary, though lacking the big breakthrough. Two years ago Pioneerof the Nile ran a brave second to Mine That Bird under the Twin Spires. A year ago likely favorite Eskendereya had to be withdrawn from Derby consideration with an injury. And five weeks ago Nehro, running against his form close to the pace, finished second behind Animal Kingdom.
“I was exuberant about his effort, yet I didn’t know what to feel,” Zayat noted in the days before the Belmont. “My family was like, ‘How could we get that close again and not do it.’ But I was happy because Nehro showed me he belonged despite the slow pace and everything going against him.”
Pioneerof the Nile, Eskendereya, and Nehro were all yearling purchases by Zayat out of Keeneland’s September auction. As in his successful business venture of purchasing then selling Al Ahram Beverages Company, Zayat has put together a carefully crafted team at sales and employs a variety of tools to select the right stock.
“I have advisors I depend on who short-list horses for us,” said Zayat. “Then we use EQB (Jeff Seder and Patti Miller) and a group of vets. But the buck stops here. I personally go and see every single horse. And we use things like heart scans and stride measurements. Any technology that can maximize the probability of success, I’ll use.”
Having had success with young horses and 3-year-olds, Zayat now tries to concentrate not only on the up and coming 2-year-olds in his stable, but in trying to guide his runners past their sophomore campaigns. Pioneerof the Nile, Eskendereya, and Zensational all had to be retired before turning 4. It is something that colored Zayat’s decision to skip the Preakness (gr. I) with Nehro and wait for the Belmont.
“He was doing everything right and had the momentum, so the Preakness was tempting,” Zayat said. “But I have to do what’s right by the horse. He’s had a tough campaign. He’s been running every four weeks like a claiming horse. I want to help the horse be happy and sound and give us a thrill, and I want him to be around at 4.
“I’d rather err on the cautious side. I know how fragile they are. I really want to have a 4-year-old. It would be good for the game and for me, and I’m trying as much as I can to do that.”
His public spat with Fifth Third Bank two years ago did not dampen Zayat’s enthusiasm for the sport. But it did make him more cost-conscious and prudent in running the business end of the operation. After declaring bankruptcy to prevent the bank from seizing his equine assets, Zayat has worked out a repayment schedule with the bank that has allowed him to continue to run a far-reaching Thoroughbred enterprise.
Zayat is currently choosing trainers for 32 2-year-olds ready to hit the racetrack. And now that he has an interest in about a half-dozen former Zayat Stables runners that are now stallions, he is doing more breeding and hopes to have something close to 40 homebreds going to the races next year, in addition to the 25-30 he typically buys annually at auction.
And he is hoping that on June 11 Nehro takes him to the winner’s circle at Belmont Park, and he doesn’t have to dwell on having come so close anymore.