American Pharoah Conquers Derby 141

American Pharoah in the winners circleThere are many ways to do the Kentucky Derby. Go to the infield and drink your heart out or stop by the front side and drink even more. Along the way you’ll likely catch up with old friends or make new ones. There are the suites and boxes as well, where NFL and NBA money is fed into gambling machines under the kind and gentle shade of the Turf Club. A few floors above and The Mansion looms large with even more prestige, glamour and mystery. There was a fashion show, a red carpet, and Mint Julep vendors as far as the eye could see. One vendor by the paddock cried that they were “the breakfast of champions.” Derby is a procession of finery, fueled by endless mirth and bookended by one of the most exciting moments in all of sports  – the run for the roses – the Kentucky Derby.

This year, the winner was American Pharoah, who claimed the rose garland with now three-time Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza aboard. But the real story of the 141st Derby was how the gregarious and popular owner Ahmed Zayat of Zayat Stables, alongside hall of fame trainer Bob Baffert (who also trained the third-placed horse in the race,  Dortmund) finally won the race, having spent so many times glancing out onto the track to see that their horse had finished second. Three times this had happened in the past, but not in 2015.

But 2015 will also be remembered for its record crowd of 170,513 that were in attendance at the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, more than in any other time in its history. More hats, fascinators, seersuckers and outrageously bold suits patronized the Downs than at any other time in its history. The result was one of the best Derbies in memory. The previous attendance record of 165,307 was established in 2012. This year, the two-day Kentucky Oaks-Derby weekend attracted a record 294,276, shattering the mark of 277,977 that was set last year. Now, imagine that. The race that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about so legendarily was a mere drop compared to this year’s edition.

Winning owner Ahmed Zayat was quick to point out what good work Churchill Downs was capable of in terms of creating a memorable experience for owners, trainers and fans, all around the property, on a record breaking set of races over two days.

Team Baffert celebrate with the Kentucky Derby Trophy.“I want to say something in front of all of you here, because we should commend people when they do things well,” said Zayat. “In the past, there has been a lot of criticism about Churchill. As a person who has been coming here and had more than one Derby runner, I have seen a 180 percent change in all attitudes. And the whole organization from A to Z… I would like personally to thank them for their hospitality, for what they have done for all owners and horsemen. I think, again, it’s to be commended. It is very, very hard. In tradition and in things that happen one way to come, and to change it, and to do it in the way they have done it and to do all the things – it’s something that I personally applaud. And thank you very much for an unbelievable fun week. I can’t say enough thanks for all the team here.”

Zayat’s son Justin, in the meantime, recalled how at the end of the race, the emotions of winning the race got the better of him and he vomited in the box as their horse finished the race.

“I confirm that story,” said the younger Zayat. “I was so emotional. After the race I started throwing up because I was full of emotions. I didn’t know what was going through. Is this a dream right now? I just want to be woken up.”

Added Ahmed Zayat: “I looked around and my wife is really crying, crying, like it really happened. And then I look at my son, and his girlfriend is holding him, and he is throwing up.”

But ultimately, Derby is a time when dreams can finally come true. They can come true for a fan who bumps into his favorite trainer or catches a glimpse of his favorite jockey, in the same way they can materialize for a lucky individual who gets to go to Millionaire’s Row for the first time. But they can also come true for an owner who has finished second in the Derby three times, losing narrowly at the last moment. In circumstances like this, the pursuit of a singular dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

American Pharoah Captures the 141 Kentucky Derby.But this is the case for Ahmed Zayat, owner of Zayat Stables, who came so close with Pioneerof the Nile (2009), Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (2012), as well as Eskendereya, a horse that was favorite in many people’s eyes but had to scratch right before the 2010 edition of the race.  But Zayat, who left his native Egypt at age 18 and attended Boston University, where he gained a master’s degree before embarking on a career in business, is used to adversity, hard work and getting what he wants… eventually. Since the inception of Zayat stables in 2005, he has fielded regular winners in countless races, but the Derby has always eluded. Not now.

So as American Pharoah – everybody’s pre-race favorite – bolted out of the starter’s gate,  with Victor Espinoza aboard, charging into the lead, it was only a matter of time before Zayat’s dream came true. Sure enough, as Pharoah pulled away at the end, already cementing himself as one of the horses of the year, Zayat and his family, including his son Justin (who acts as his stable manager) poured along the narrow lane of the newly built Winner’s Circle Suites onto the damp and pliable dirt of the track to embrace. As Victor Espinoza passed by atop the latest Triple Crown contender, the Zayats and their entourage were in a scrum: hugging, celebrating and crying, enveloped in a freshly made cocoon of the world’s media, who were trying to capture the obvious joy.

# 18-2015 Kentucky Derby winner American Pharaoh.“We were ready to rumble,” explained winning trainer Bob Baffert, who claimed his fourth Derby. “Since their last works, I was hearing how good they were, and I was hoping it would come true. I felt very confident going in.”

As for winning jockey Victor Espinoza, it was a third Derby and his second consecutive win, having ridden another fairytale horse, California Chrome, in 2014.

“I feel like the luckiest Mexican on earth,” said a beaming Espinoza. “(American Pharoah) has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse. Turning for home I started riding a little harder. At the eighth pole, I just couldn’t put that other horse (Firing Line) away, but he got it done.”

The Kentucky Derby delivers dreams. Many bets were won and lost, but those placing them lived the dream of going to the Kentucky Derby, whether it was their first or last. But for Ahmed Zayat, the dream of winning at Churchill Downs finally came true, and now he’s off to the Preakness in search of the second win in the Triple Crown – another dream that, for many, has remained just that – a dream. It’s been a long time since the Triple Crown was claimed, but then again, if anyone can make them come true, it’s the dreamers.  

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS and AMBER CHALFIN