LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ahmed Zayat stood on a country road, his tan face damp with perspiration.
"None of this looks familiar!" he said. "I don't even recognize this place."
Around the side of a rented white SUV, a member of his lost entourage -- wearing a T-shirt embossed with the name of Kentucky Derby favorite Bodemeister -- was urinating in the bushes.
It's a long drive from Louisville to the middle of nowhere.
Two days before Kentucky Derby 138, Zayat and son Justin, friends in tow, escaped the confines of Churchill Downs, left Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert with their 3-year-old colt on cruise control, and split for the rolling hills of central Kentucky. Forget the pressures of the greatest two minutes in sports; they'd be nervous enough on Saturday. It was time to visit Zayat's mares and foals, the next generation of hoped-to-be great runners.
"This is the life," 20-year-old Justin Zayat said as his father and the rest of the passengers waited for the farm owner to locate their vehicle and guide them in. "What more could you ask?"
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Three weeks ago, Ahmed Zayat didn't have a Derby contender. Now he has the morning line favorite.
"That's the way it goes in this game," he said, "Highs and lows."
He'll never forget owning Eskendereya, the horse who was going to be the Derby favorite in 2010. Freakish winner of the Fountain of Youth and the Wood Memorial, the Todd Pletcher trainee loomed large in the months leading to the Derby before he was withdrawn from consideration on the Saturday before the race with a soft tissue injury in his left front leg.
"I'll always have a question mark in my mind, like, 'what if?'" Zayat said.
The highs and lows have hit him in other ways as well. Since 2008, four of his runners have been in the Derby and two of them -- Pioneerof the Nile and Nehro -- were in front turning for home.
"I knew what it felt like to win the Derby for half a second when those horses both hit the lead before being run down," Zayat said. "I didn't know whether to be happy I ran second in the Derby or to be sad I missed it. It was a very confusing emotion to experience. To stay in front going under the wire? I can't even imagine what that would feel like."
It was at Oaklawn Park on April 14 when Bodemeister sprang into position to potentially provide that feeling with a scintillating 9½-length Arkansas Derby victory. The most visually impressive prep of the season put him at the head of his class.
"It's raw talent, he just has a tremendous amount of raw talent," Baffert said.
Before the Arkansas Derby, the lightly raced son of Empire Maker was second in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes off a 9¼-length maiden win in February, but he did not run the season before and didn't have enough graded earnings to make the 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May. If he wins the Derby, he'll be the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without racing as a 2-year-old.
"I remember watching the Arkansas Derby, me and Dad, and we're just looking at each other like, 'We run second, we're not in the Derby,'" Justin Zayat said. "We had to win the Arkansas Derby to get in. How much more pressure do you want?"
Ahmed Zayat is used to dealing with pressure -- he puts himself under it, in fact. With Masters degrees in business and public health from Boston University and Harvard, the 49-year-old Egyptian entrepreneur is best known for turning around downfallen businesses. He famously privatized Al Ahram Beverages Company (ABC), made it into the largest beverage manufacturer and distributor in the Middle East, then sold it to Heineken for $280 million in 2002.
This year he's been tied up acquiring a major U.S. company and hasn't spent much time at the racetrack, but he still runs Zayat Stable with incredible attention to detail. Business is what he does -- weeks like this are what he lives for.
"My kids say I'm happier around the horses," he said.
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He grew up in Egypt, the son of Alaa Zayat, who was dean of Cario Medical School and physician to President Anwar Sadat. His love for horses stems from a childhood in the saddle riding show jumpers in top events -- he won the national championship two times in the under-12 and under-14 divisions.
Zayat entered thoroughbred racing in 2005 and quickly became one of the sport's leading buyers. In 2006 he dropped $4.6 million on a yearling he named Maimonides after the ancient Jewish philosopher.
He says he's spent about $100 million on horse racing since then.
"Look up the word intense, you'll see a picture of him," Baffert said. "He's really competitive, and I like guys who are really competitive, because that means they're going to get better horses."
He's really competitive, and I like guys who are really competitive, because that means they're going to get better horses.
”-- Trainer Bob Baffert on Ahmed Zayat
Zayat wants his runners to be at the top of the game, in the sport's biggest races, and he wants them to win. The best trainers in North America condition his horses -- Baffert, multiple Eclipse Award winners Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, who won the Preakness last year, and savvy New York conditioner Rudy Rodriguez.
In an eight-year span since 2005, Zayat Stable ranked among the top five owners in North America six times, led by a No. 1 position in 2008 when his horses earned nearly $6.9 million in purses. He's been the leader at some of the nation's most prestigious race meets, including Saratoga, Hollywood and Del Mar. At the height of his operation, there were 285 horses under the Zayat banner.
Now the program has been culled to 118, part of the fallout from a 2009 financial battle with Fifth Third Bank over $34 million in loans. The bank sued, saying Zayat had defaulted on payments. Zayat countersued. He says officers agreed to extend the loans, then reneged on their offer, employing "misleading, deceptive and predatory practices." In 2010 he filed for bankruptcy protection for Zayat Stables.
"It was a big deal because I took it very personally, I really did," Zayat said. "I pride myself on being an honorable man. Basically they were trying to twist my arm and I didn't go for that. It was all about principles. I wanted to win to show that you can't bully me."
Fifth Third was ordered to reinstate the loans for a five-year term and all of the Zayat Stable creditors voted unanimously to support the plan of reorganization submitted through bankruptcy proceedings.
"Everything is current, everything is normal, it's over," he said. "I reduced the overhead to show, hey, I'm running a solid business here. But the economics of that business have also changed. Remember, I came in at the top of the market. The crash started in 2007, 2008. All of my inventory was bought at the height of the market. We had a huge financial investment."
Now Zayat retains ownership in 12 stallions, about 30 broodmares and a matching number of foals, 21 yearlings, and the stable of racing stars led by Bodemeister. The colt was a $260,000 yearling purchase from the Keeneland September sale in 2010.
Zayat bought him in spite of protestations from his advisers, who liked other yearlings by Empire Maker better than the bay with the crooked blaze. They weren't impressed with the colt's movement -- to this day, his gallop is a bit gangly -- but Zayat remembered his mother, a mare named Untouched Talent, who ran second to Point Ashley, his first Grade 1 winner, in 2006.
"I thought she was a freak, and we beat her," he said. "I had to have him."
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Few would call him traditional, and fewer still wish to be on the receiving end of his wrath, but no one doubts Zayat is good for the game. Outspoken and enthusiastic, he loves his horses and wants to do what's best for them. One summer he pulled all of his runners out of Del Mar Racetrack in Southern California because he felt the surface there was dangerous. (He sent them to Saratoga and won more races than any other owner there that season.) Another year he split with Baffert, but the two reunited after coming to an understanding -- both micromanagers, they respect each other's expertise and points of view.
"I am the one of all his owners who gives him a run for his money," Zayat said. "I give him a lot of aggravation, like I'm opinionated, but I know he's a Hall of Famer, who the hell am I? I'm going to train the horse, for example? I wouldn't change the relationship and I know he feels the same."
"He came back and we've gotten along so well, never had an argument, nothing," Baffert said. "We've had a really good relationship ever since."
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Finally arriving at Tom Van Meter's Pretty Run Farm in Winchester, Team Zayat unloaded from the car and went about inspecting yearlings, mares and foals. This was an operation like no other. Most owners stand back and allow expert grooms to handle their horses, presenting an equine parade about as interactive as a fashion show. Not this one. He petted the foals and felt their legs and backs and held their halters and led them around and usually, done casting them over with an expert eye, he kissed their fuzzy foreheads.
"This is the best part," he said. "You dream the dream right here."
Zayat breeds to race, not sell. These foals are by horses he has retired to stud after successful campaigns -- like Pioneerof the Nile, another son of Empire Maker, and Eskendereya. The majority of his broodmares also ran under his silks.
"If we don't support our own stallions, who will?" he asked.
After a late lunch during which the talk was all about horses, the white SUV went hurtling back to Louisville and Race 10 at Churchill, where a horse named Riley Tucker would eventually finish third. Named after Riley Mott, son of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, he's a stable favorite.
"It's all about young people," said Zayat, who named this year's Derby runner after Baffert's 8-year-old son Bode. "I'm seeing right now, like Justin's generation, like Riley, they're coming back to racing and they're bringing friends and their parents and their parents' friends. It's creating this new line, and we need that. The people who are young who love racing need that encouragement to keep following the sport, because it will die otherwise."
"Racing's like a vacuum," Justin said. "That's what my dad always tells me. He's like, 'Once you're in it, you can't get out.' I'll always be in racing, no matter what job I do. Racing will always be there."
Justin is a student at NYU, where he passed out "Go Bode Go" T-shirts to members of his fraternity before he left for Kentucky.
"They're like, 'Go Bode Go, man, you gotta hook me up!'" he laughed.
"I'm just a FOO -- Friend Of Owner," said Justin's schoolmate, Ryan Small, the one in the party wearing the swag. "I watch every race. Never been to the Derby before and only been to the track one other time at Aqueduct, but he makes me watch every time they're running. I'm good luck."
In the front seat, Zayat was relaxed, confident and optimistic regarding Bodemeister's chances.
"He has this Apollo curse to beat, but if he runs anywhere close to his Arkansas Derby performance, they aren't going to catch him," he said.
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.