Ahmed Zayat refuses to buckle. He has repeatedly been tested for patience and perseverence and battles on with enthusiasm and a positive attitude.
A few years ago he prevailed when a bank sought to take over his Thoroughbred holdings. And on the racetrack his runners have come tantalizingly close to delivering him racing's biggest prizes, only to fall just short. Yet onward Zayat pushes, as he attempts to win his first 3-year-old classic tussle in the June 9 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with the highly touted but lightly raced Paynter.
Zayat's Bodemeister , second in both the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) after looking like a winner in each, only continued the close-but-no-cigar trend for Zayat in the Run for the Roses. Last year his Nehro finished second to Animal Kingdom. In 2009 Zayat's Pioneerof the Nile was passed by longshot Mine That Bird under the Twin Spires and ran second. And in 2010, his Eskendereya , widely thought to be much the best horse heading into the Derby, was scratched with an injury shortly before the race.
"Listen, I thought we had the Derby and I thought we had the Preakness," said Zayat, a native of Egypt who became a beverage magnate in his home country and now lives in New Jersey. "So how am I? Disappointed at the outcome, but proud of my horse. He (Bodemeister) ran a crazy race in the Derby and at one point I thought he was winning for fun. But when you looked at the clock (and the fast fractions he was running) you thought, 'How is that possible?' I believe Bode is a very nice colt; those races could have gone either way."
Paynter, though relatively unknown, was thought to be one of the most talented 3-year-olds around the Bob Baffert barn early this year. After winning his career debut at 5 1/2 furlongs in February, Baffert went straight to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) with him. Paynter finished fourth behind I'll Have Another . Three weeks later he ran second over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs in the The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III), then cruised by daylight in an allowance event at Pimlico Race Course on the Preakness undercard. Zayat went to $325,000 to buy the son of Awesome Again at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
"I try to buy classic horses and it was written all over him that he was that kind," Zayat noted. "His dam (Tizso) is full to Tiznow ; he is royally bred and looks and acts the part. Everyone has been high on him, but we've been patient, which is easier to do when you have Bodemeister and you space them out and let them mature at their own pace.
"Paynter is a very fast horse who will thrive over distance. The question is how seasoned is he and is he ready to take on the caliber of horses in the Belmont. On raw talent, yes. Based on his pedigree and how he gallops, the distance shouldn't be a question."
Paynter is named after a contractor Baffert knows, and the trainer asked Zayat if he minded naming a horse after his friend, who Baffert said was a lucky guy. Zayat went along with the plan. Zayat said he will only run Paynter in the Belmont if the horse is sitting on a huge effort.
"He will win a grade I somewhere," Zayat offered, "so I'm not in this race just to run and try to be a spoiler. If he's not training up to a top performance, he won't run. But so far he is doing everything right."
And Zayat, a gregarious presence on the backstretch, is keeping the right attitude as he pursues big-game races.
"I feel we are very blessed to have the kind of horses year in and year out that show up and fight in these races," he said. "I would have wanted to win the Derby and the Preakness. It is somewhat of a letdown and it hurts to watch the replays. But I am not sorry about any of it. It's a fantastic experience and it makes me want to go after it even more."