Joanne Zayat missed the crucial moment when American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby. Victory had been tantalizingly close in the past for the Zayats of Teaneck—three second-place finishes—and she was afraid the same thing would happen again. Pioneer of the Nile was way ahead in 2009 when a longshot came up on the rail and passed him by half a length. In the 2012 Derby, Bodemeister was almost there—when another horse passed him to win by a nose. “I didn’t watch Pharoah come across the wire, thinking we were going to lose,” she recalled. Her magnificent bay colt was running in third place, but he took the lead in the homestretch and galloped under the finish line in front. “When I heard the announcer say Pharoah was the winner, I was flying,” she said. “We had quite a few local friends and guests and we all started jumping.”
The Zayats live in two different worlds: the rarified, high-stakes arena of thoroughbred horse racing and the Orthodox Jewish family community of Teaneck. “We maintain our focus on what’s really important,” she said earnestly, “God, family and everyone else. We are fortunate. We haven’t had to make a choice.” The Zayats are major supporters of local Jewish institutions including the Frisch School and SINAI Schools. When I told a friend about writing this article, she remembered that Joanne Zayat was the Bikkur Cholim volunteer who visited her daughter when she was hospitalized, and displayed warmth and concern that was very comforting.
Churchill Downs, Kentucky is an unusual location for a Shabbos meal but the family celebrated in style. “We had a kosher caterer and lots of people at our table Friday night. Some of our guests were surprised. They said, ‘you guys really have Shabbos!’ Every hotel is very accommodating. The caterers are wonderful and do everything correctly with plastic utensils and servingware. It can be Shabbos wherever you are, ” she said.
The Kentucky Derby victory was a wonderful pre-graduation gift for Justin Zayat, the 23-year-old Racing and Stallion Manager of Zayat Stables. A graduate of Yavneh Academy and Frisch High School, Justin will be graduating from New York University on May 20 with a degree in economics.
“Justin is my husband’s left hand and right-hand man,” his proud mother said. “They do everything together in the business. Justin is a young adult but he’s respected in the industry.” Most stables specialize in either breeding or racing but Zayat Stables does both. Justin manages the stallion books, the records of where the male horses are sent for the breeding part of the business. He also picks the races their horses enter. “Horses are bred for different characteristics, like turf, distance and speed, and he matches the horse to the race,” she explained. “Justin loves it. If he wants to stay in the business, that’s great. But if he wants to try something else, that’s great, too. You have to do what you’re passionate about.”
The three other Zayat children are big fans but not directly involved in the business. Ashley, a jewelry designer, lives in Miami with her husband. The two younger ones are still in school.
The horses are named after people and places important to them. American Pharoah and Pioneer of the Nile, his sire, reflect Ahmed (Ephraim) Zayat’s Egyptian roots. American Pharoah was the winning entry in the Zayats’ annual naming contest and no one realized that Pharoah was misspelled until after the name was officially registered. Several horses are named for the Zayat children: Point Ashley, Justin Phillip, and Littleprincessemma.
Ephraim Zayat has been passionate about horses since his childhood in Egypt, where he competed in horse show jumping events. He moved to the US at age 18, earned an undergraduate degree, and then a Master’s at Boston University. He worked in commercial real estate in New York, and met Joanne through a mutual friend. With the real estate downturn in the 1990s, he returned to Egypt. The government was selling off assets that (the late Egyptian leader Abdul Gamul) Nasser had nationalized in the 1950s and he bought a 100-year-old brewing company. Zayat modernized the company, introducing 180 brands and non-alcoholic beer, an innovative concept for Muslims, who are not permitted to drink alcohol. The brewery’s success attracted Heineken and he sold the company to them. He began looking for a new career.
“He was commuting back and forth and didn’t want to be an absentee father,” Joanne Zayat said. “He couldn’t retire, so he had to find something he loved that would let him be home.” He returned to his love of horses, and became an owner of thoroughbred racehorses in 2005. Zayat Stables has been named one of North America’s top five owners seven times, including this year.
While the company is managed from New Jersey, the horses live elsewhere. They are bred in Kentucky, taught how to be racehorses at a farm in Florida, and sent to one of several trainers who are based mainly in California. They begin racing at age two and travel to racetracks around the country.
Fresh from his Derby win, American Pharoah will be running May 16 in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD, in the second leg of The Triple Crown. The third race is held at Belmont Park on Long Island. Racing fans are always hoping for a Triple Crown winner but there hasn’t been one since 1978. Zayat explained why a Triple Crown winner is such a rarity. “It takes tremendous stamina to run a horse race, and usually a horse won’t run another race for six to eight weeks. But the Preakness is two weeks after the Derby and the Belmont is three weeks after the Preakness. That’s three races in the time span a horse usually has just one.”
No matter what happens at the Preakness, Joanne Zayat will always remember the thrill of winning the Kentucky Derby. “In my life, I never thought it would be like this, being at the Derby with the winner,” she said, reliving the incredible experience. “Every year, there are 30,000 three-year-old racehorses and only 20 make it to the Derby. Just to be one of 20 is an honor.” And to be the winner? “The high, the elation, is like nothing you ever felt in your life.”
By Bracha Schwartz