Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
(Editor’s Note: Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity.)
Since the turn of the century we’ve seen six Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners try and fail to complete their Triple Crown bid with a win at the Belmont Stakes. On Saturday afternoon, American Pharoah will be the seventh horse with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and in doing so become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the three biggest races in American horse racing.
The task itself is monumental.
It’s like a pitcher carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning: Everyone’s excited, the hype is palpable, but there’s a lot that can go wrong and the most arduous stretch of work is yet to come.
Justin Zayat is the Racing & Stallion Manager for Zayat Stables and is the son of its founder, Ahmed Zayat, who started the stable in 2005. Justin is 23 and just graduated from NYU this past week, but has been deeply ingrained in the horse racing industry for years.
Justin and his family have experienced success on the track with championship caliber horses before, but none the likes of American Pharoah, who can put an indelible mark on the horse racing world with a win on Saturday afternoon.
CBS Local Sports spoke with Justin Zayat before the running of the Belmont Stakes about the upcoming race and what it’s been like to watch American Pharoah’s rise to superstardom over the last few weeks.
CBS Local Sports: Does all that Pharoah has accomplished so far feel real? Has everything set in for you yet?
Zayat: No, I really feel like I’m still dreaming you know, I never in my life dream’t that I’d have a horse running for the Triple Crown let alone winning the Kentucky Derby. We’ve just been on Cloud 9, floating, there’s really no words to explain what you’re feeling. Anxiety, you can’t sleep at night, you’re nervous, you’re excited. And now that he got his last workout out of the way today (6/1/2015), that was like the last major major piece of work, so that was a relief to get that done with, now on to the Belmont.
CBS Local Sports: And by all accounts, everything went well today with the workout?
Zayat: Yeah everything went super. Exactly as planned. He just really cruised around there, he looks like he’s holding his energy well, he’s alert, his ears are perked, he’s showing energy, really all the good signs you want to see from a horse, especially a horse that’s run through such a grueling Triple Crown trail so far, he’s really showing all the right signs. He’s really right on target and we couldn’t be more pleased.
CBS Local Sports: Today it was a little bit rainy and muddy, at this point after what Pharoah showed you guys at Preakness and today, are you even going to worry about the weather on Saturday?
Zayat: [Laughing] The mud is never a concern for us. If it rains it rains, if it’s shiny it’s shiny – I’m not even going to look at the weather. Rain or shine, he’s going to have to run anyway and he’s going to have to run his best race to win so it doesn’t really make a difference. But trust me, if I see rain on Saturday I won’t be crying.
CBS Local Sports: Was there a point before the Kentucky Derby, early on in Pharoah’s life, where you thought maybe this horse could be special? Could win a Kentucky Derby?
Zayat: Yeah, I always knew, we knew this horse was always special. But at the same time, you know, so many things go wrong in racing and things happen – we ran second three times in the Kentucky Derby – so at the same time I was thinking ‘what happens if we run second again? But we knew, this horse, since day one, we always knew he was a talented horse especially when he started training as a two year old, we knew he was something special. I mean, the way he won his two races as a two year old they were just really impressive, which is obviously why he was voted two-year-old champion. So you know, obviously when you have two-year-old champion coming into year three you expect big things.
So going into the Derby we were super confident. First of all, everyone going into the Derby was talking about how superb this horse was training, how he looks, people were calling him Michael Jordan and things like that, and I was just like, ‘wow, I’m glad everyone is seeing what I’m seeing, but it just adds to the pressure more and more.”
CBS Local Sports: Going into Belmont, do you guys think that you’ve learned anything from horses like Big Brown or California Chrome in years past that haven’t completed the Triple Crown after winning the Derby and Preakness?
Zayat: Getting the horse ready for the Belmont is really in the hands of Bob (Baffert). Bob has done this twice already, three times before actually with Silver Charm, War Emblem and Real Quiet so Bob Baffert knows how to get to the Triple Crown.
Something I guess we learned, at least with our horse and why he’s still around right now, is he’s kind of a fresh horse. He didn’t start (running) until March this year, so it’s not like he’s been running from December or January, he only ran two races before the Derby you know, so he hasn’t been racing hard, hard, hard all year. I’m not saying about California Chrome, I’m not talking about this horse, but some people will say that running through the Triple Crown, by the time you get to the Belmont some of them can’t hold their weight well, some of them get tired or just kind of worn out – it’s a grueling, grueling campaign. Thank god that’s just not happened to our horse.
CBS Local Sports: There’s so much that surrounds the Belmont as far as how hard of a race it is and how long the race is, especially after a horse wins the Derby and the Preakness. Do you think it’s unfair that Pharoah’s reputation somewhat hinges on this last race with all that’s been accomplished already?
Zayat: I understand what you’re saying, but you know, all of the horses that have gone down so far to lose the Triple Crown are great horses. Pharoah right now, I think deserves all the pressure he’s getting to run. You know, obviously, he was the two-year old champion, he won the Kentucky Derby and now he’s proved to everyone that he’s kind of a cut above the rest right now in terms of running.
The thing about Pharoah right now, it’s not just us watching, or Bob watching, every single person every single morning is watching this horse, and then you go on Twitter, you go on KentuckyDerby.com, you can watch this horse train every single morning at 8:30 a.m. So every single person is seeing what we’re seeing, so they’re all getting pumped up seeing just how good the horse is actually doing. I guess it’s putting pressure, not only on us but on the entire industry as a whole. I feel like it’s just something that every single person is rooting for. Everyone wants to see a Triple Crown winner, everyone really wants it, so just putting the pressure on the whole entire industry more than us.
CBS Local Sports: I can hear the excitement in your voice and it’s got to be an amazing feeling.
Zayat: I am getting hundreds of Facebook messages, Twitter, text messages a day, every single person is on board going for Pharoah, you know? All my friends are going nuts, people who have never in their lives watched a horse race, and they’re all on board right now. And it’s so cool to see how big this has become and how many people are really so in love with this horse and what he’s done for people, what he’s done for our family.
CBS Local Sports: Last question is, obviously everyone’s rooting for Pharoah, but who do you think might come in and play the villain to this storybook ending?
Zayat: I think that’s maybe between Materiality, Todd Pletcher’s horse, and Kiaran McLaughlin’s horse, Frosted, they seem to be the second and third choices and the most logical horses right now, but you know, a mile and a half, it’s a question mark for every single person coming into the race. It could be, who knows, could be a 50-1 shot that upsets us all. Obviously I’m not hoping for anything like that, but if you put a gun to my head right now I’d say it’s going to be either Todd Pletcher or Kiaran McLaughlin, they’re both fantastic trainers and do a fantastic job so they’re going to have their horses ready to roll also. Plus, they’ve both been sharpening their knives, they both skipped the Preakness, so they’re ready to come at the Pharoah.