LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Finally, a trip to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle for Ahmed Zayat.
After three disappointing runner-up finishes, the owner won his first Derby when favorite American Pharoah took the Run for the Roses on Saturday before at record crowd of 170,513 at Churchill Downs.
The owner from Egypt who lives in New Jersey celebrated with his trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, both of whom are well acquainted with winning the Derby. Baffert won his fourth, Espinoza his third.
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”To win this Derby, this is for the Zayats who have suffered so much running these seconds, since Bodemeister and Pioneerof the Nile,” Baffert said. ”We know what it is to just get completely punched right in the face.”
Zayat, 52, was all smiles.
”I’m speechless and very emotional. We’ve been very close,” he said. ”This is one special horse.”
Asked if it’s on to the Preakness in two weeks, Zayat laughed and said ”we’ll see.”
Zayat finished second in the Derby with Bodemeister in 2012, Nehro in 2011 and Pioneerof the Nile in 2009. Baffert trained Bodemeister and Pioneerof the Nile.
”No more seconds,” Zayat added.
With all those close calls, it’s no wonder Zayat spoke cautiously about his Derby chances – even though American Pharoah was the favorite in a deep 18-horse field. The owner also had Mr. Z, who finished 13th, and El Kabeir, scratched on Friday with a foot issue.
Though American Pharoah’s one-length victory over Firing Line was the closest of a six-race career in which he had been rarely tested, he proved he could answer a challenge.
Espinoza kept him among the leaders in the 1 1/4 mile race before pushing him in the final turn for home, getting past Firing Line and Dortmund and stretching it out from there.
”Pharoah is a freak of nature and for the first time I am seeing him right now working, working hard,” Zayat said while watching a replay of the win during a news conference.
”I knew if he had the lead, nobody would catch him.”
Firing Line was second and Dortmund third, giving Baffert a 1-3 showing in the Derby. But this was all about Zayat, whose business operation appeared to be in limbo five years ago.
Zayat Stables had filed for bankruptcy and the owner was involved a lawsuit with his bank over his credit line. He also had the expected 2010 Derby favorite in Eskendereya, but the horse sustained an injury a few days before the race and didn’t run.
Zayat was also investigated for his ties to a pair of brothers convicted of running an illegal gambling operation – the debts of which were listed in the bankruptcy filing.
Having come through that stressful financial period, Zayat was focused on achieving the horse owner’s dream that American Pharoah finally delivered.
Those frustrations on and off the track seemed far behind Zayat on a day in which he was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Said Zayat’s son, Justin, ”I was so emotional after the race I actually started throwing up because I was so full of emotions.”
AP Staff Writers Claire Galafaro, Adam Beam and Dylan T. Lovan contributed to this report.