Jewish Owner Lets His Pharoah Go

Jewish Owner Lets His Pharoah Go


By Michael Jacobs /

Michael Jacobs Atlanta Jewish TimesThoroughbred horse racing hasn’t seen a Triple Crown winner in 37 years, but a horse with a misspelled name owned by an Egyptian Orthodox Jew who made his fortune selling booze to Muslims has a chance to break the losing streak Saturday, June 6.

It’s a true only-in-America story, and if American Pharoah crosses the line first in the Belmont Stakes, you can bet studios will race to film the life story of owner Ahmed Zayat.

Not only didn’t his Zayat Stables exist when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, but Zayat hadn’t even graduated from high school, let alone come to America.

Zayat, 52, grew up in an affluent family in Egypt, one of the few who stayed after Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in the 1950s, and he came to the United States for college in the 1980s. Armed with degrees from Yeshiva and Boston universities, he went back to Egypt in 1995 and made his fortune running a beer company, Al-Ahram.

Zayat used some of that money to get into horse racing with his own Zayat Stables in 2005, and he moved back to the United States for good in 2007. He and his wife, Joanne, live in the Orthodox community of Teaneck, N.J., and have four children, ranging from eighth grade to new college graduate.

It has to be awkward for the Zayats that the biggest days of the year in their business occur on Shabbat, but Joanne Zayat told the New Jersey Jewish Standard that “there is no conflict.”

The family stays within walking distance of the racetrack, either in a hotel (as in Louisville for the Derby) or in a luxury trailer (used in Baltimore for the Preakness and Elmont, N.Y., for the Belmont), and has catered kosher meals.

I’ll leave it to rabbis to say whether Ahmed Zayat ought to lift race trophies on Saturdays. But after American Pharoah won a close Kentucky Derby on May 2 and breezed to victory in the Preakness Stakes on May 16, the Zayats are only 1½ miles, roughly 2½ minutes, from the lifting the third trophy of the Triple Crown. (A fan contest produced the horse’s name, and the family failed to notice the misspelling of pharaoh before making the name official.)

The Zayats’ ride to horse racing’s promised land hasn’t always been smooth.

Three times, starting with American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile, in 2009, a Zayat horse ran second in the Kentucky Derby. In 2012, Zayat pulled off the Triple Crown of heartbreak by finishing second in all three races — Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness and Paynter in the Belmont.

Despite its success on the track, the stable went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2010.

Zayat faces a lawsuit alleging that he failed to pay millions of dollars in gambling debts with a sports book based in Costa Rica, and New York media outlets such as the Post, the Times and the Observer have run articles since the Preakness win that have questioned his honesty and character.

But none of that negativity will matter when the Zayats walk into Belmont Park.

One of the highlights of my newspaper career was the day I covered the 1992 Belmont for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. The winner was A.P. Indy, sired by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, to whom American Pharoah is often compared.

That’s about as close as I get to a connection to American Pharoah, but I’ll toast his chances to make history this Shabbat.

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