The Belmont Stakes of 2015, aside from the excitement of bringing the large community of horse race enthusiasts the first Triple Crown winner since 1979, offers many many exciting things to come, among them, the realization of the Zayats’ true dream. This unique family is the owner of American Pharoah, winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, and the horse is heavily favored to win the Belmont Stakes. Adding to this family’s uniqueness for instance, is that if one went out for a drive to search for Zayat Stables at 401 Hackensack Avenue, instead of finding the a bunch of stables with a dirt floor and circular practice track, what he or she see instead is an office building in close proximity to T.G.I. Fridays.
When asked, Justin Zayat, son of Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah’s owner, explained that their horses, including American Pharoah are kept in Belmont Park, where the Belmont Stakes will be run, and which is the main NYRA headquarters. Other venues where their stable are located, include Aqueduct, Saratoga, Monmouth, as well as the Kentucky and Florida farms. New Jersey is strictly where the offices are based.
At age 23, the younger Zayat has had quite an exciting few months and if his horse goes on to win the Belmont Stakes, this will be the fulfillment of lifelong dream. Since he was 13, he had helped manage his father’s horses, several of them including American Pharoah, which had been champions. In 2011, he went to New York University, so he could be in close proximity to his family’s business while pursuing his degree in economics. Now he is experiencing the thrills of watching his family’s gem win race after race, including capturing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and anticipating the outcome of tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes. He has made several appearances on TV, at interviews, all while focusing on studying for college final exams in order to graduate with his degree in economics at New York University.
The Zayats live in Teaneck, New Jersey and had not always been involved in the horse racing business. The father himself had experienced his own unique life journey, which began 1962 in Maadi, Egypt, a small suburban area in the outskirts of Cairo in 1962. At age 18 he arrived in the U.S. and established himself as a natural entrepreneur after completing his education. Returning to Egypt, he founded many companies, including Al-Ahram, a non-alcoholic beverage company, which he purchased from the Egyptian government and eventually sold to Heineken. It was then in 2005 that he founded his racing company in order to pursue his true passion of racing horses, and now owns American Pharoah who could very well be the first Triple Crown winner in a long time if he wins the Belmont Stakes.
Although the elder Zayat has often identified himself as both Muslim and Jewish, he is in fact a devoted adherent to the Jewish faith. Unlike most of his fellow community members who left Egypt upon the ascent of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, Zayat along with some of the more affluent Jews stayed in Egypt until his adulthood. When asked about his childhood, he stated that it was not much different than here. As a teen, his favorite past time was riding horses, where he competed in horse jumping events.
After arriving in the U.S., he attended Harvard and then to Yeshiva University to obtain his undergraduate degree. While keeping a kosher home and observing the Sabbath, his menus are arranged in advance of the races, and prior to the events, he arranges to be in a hotel in close proximity to the track in order to avoid the prohibition of driving. If the family were unable to locate a hotel, like in the Preakness, where he showed up unshaven due to the prohibition of shaving they would opt to stay in an R.V.
The younger Zayat has followed in his father’s footsteps with a flair for leadership. As a teen, he was the captain of his Jewish school’s hockey and headed a program in mentoring arriving freshmen in his school. From the time Zayat stables was founded, he has been heavily involved and passionate in his father’s business. “It is really about the horse, not about the family,” Zayat told reporters earlier this week. He had dreamed of his horse, American Pharoah winning the Kentucky Derby, and after winning the Preakness, his dream of winning the Triple Crown may actually be realized with a victory in the Belmont Stakes. “It’s not impossible to dream,” he proudly stated.
By Bill Ades
New Jersey Online – Belmont Stakes: Getting to know Justin Zayat, the N.J.-based manager of American Pharoah
New Jersey Online – Preakness Stakes 2015: 5 things to know about American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat
Jewish Standard – We’ve got the horse right here
Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Photo Courtesy of neiljs’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License