TDN Q & A: Ahmed Zayat

Thursday, August 18, 2016
TDN Q & A: Ahmed Zayat
The following article originally appeared in the Aug. 16, 2016 TDN

By Gary King

The recent Arqana August Yearling Sale witnessed a flurry of international activity. One name that jumped off the list of buyers was that of Zayat Stables. Ahmed Zayat, an Egyptian-born entrepreneur, has tasted plenty of success since entering Thoroughbred racing in 2005. American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), America’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, carried his famous silks throughout an historic campaign. TDN’s Gary King chatted to Ahmed about his purchases at Arqana, and the future direction of Zayat Stables.

TDN: Frankel has obviously made an extremely fast start at stud. Is that what attracted you to lot 57 at Arqana (purchased through agent Justin Casse for €410,000)?

AZ: First let’s just talk about Frankel for a second. Because as you correctly said, what a horse. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse that has affected all of us even though we are here in America. You know the legacy of the trainer, and the owners. I’m a huge fan of Juddmonte as a racing operation. If you asked me who you dream to be like in terms of breeding, it would be them. They have clearly done it the right way; patience for many years, invested money, and they keep coming with one runner after another. So Juddmonte as a breeding operation, in my opinion, is top-class. They are number one in the world, in my very humble opinion. As you know, their son Empire Maker [now standing at Gainesway] has brought me all the luck in the world. The sire of Pioneerof the Nile and Mushka, and the [paternal] grandsire of American Pharoah. So I feel very strongly about the Juddmonte school. And Frankel is no exception, not only in terms of looks and sheer heart, but in tenacity. We can see his progeny right now are insane. Every single horse is a runner, in every jurisdiction in Europe. It’s always fun to find a Frankel that you can bring home, and see if he will work out. This particular lot has an American pedigree written all over it from A to Z (pedigree). We were not at the sale, but Justin Casse sometimes buys horses for us, and we told him to keep an eye out and give Justin [Zayat] and myself a call. It’s always fun to put your hand on a Frankel, let alone one with an American pedigree. We wanted him, and we were going to buy him. He [Justin Casse] actually didn’t have a budget, so I told him to just go and buy him. I think he would have fetched more in terms of looks and pedigree, but he has more of an American pedigree than any other Frankel that was available. So we got lucky. He wasn’t cheap but he also wasn’t a million-dollar yearling. We will bring him back home here and see how it goes.

TDN: Justin Casse mentioned that the colt will be sent to Florida. When do you typically decide on the trainer?

AZ: We don’t do any allocation until March of their 2-year-old year. So in January they will have turned two, and we will have seen them already trained and broken by the McKathans in Ocala [Florida]. Then we start thinking about which horse belongs in what jurisdiction, and what trainer would be a suitable fit. We don’t buy a horse thinking where he’s going and what trainer. They are fragile, take time to develop, while some are precocious and some are late. So we have to give them time. As you know they change overnight literally. It’s a process that you have to watch and be in tune with your horse, and you go from there.

TDN: You were extremely generous by allowing the public access to American Pharoah last year. Juddmonte has done a fantastic job managing Frankel as well. How important is this for the popularity of the sport?

AZ: I think it’s incredibly important. You know, we waited for 37 years [for a Triple Crown winner]. When the special moment of winning a Triple Crown arrived, and we were in the winning circle, I said live on NBC that this is America’s horse and he belongs to everybody. I meant what I said. I kept my word and gave access to every single person that wanted to see him. In my opinion, he’s the most-photographed horse in the world. People from all walks, from toddlers to senior citizens, literally from all over the world, as far as Australia and Egypt have come to see him. Gratefully, I had an incredible trainer that knew it was important for people to access the horse. I knew it wasn’t easy, but Baffert and his team were extremely gracious opening our barn and allowing people to come and pet him, and feel like they were part of history. So I have fulfilled two promises. One that he will be America’s horse, and the second if he’s healthy and sound to keep him racing. Because that’s what excites the sport as we need stars. And guilty as I am for financial reasons, you get offered an arm an a leg to stand as a stallion, and retire him early. I would have kept him racing as long as I could, but sometimes you have to understand the reality of the business and the economic cycle. I have put a lot of money into this business, tens of millions of dollars, but sometimes you have to take some chips off the table. In order to continue going and have other stars. It’s kind of a balancing act, so I felt while we had him to enjoy him, and let the public enjoy him as well.

TDN: American Pharoah: Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Has it fully sunk in yet?

AZ: No. To be honest with you, every time I’m either blue, depressed or just down, I will simply go to my laptop or iPad and put on a race. You’ll immediately find me happy and smiling and my whole demeanour changes. It’s such a joy, it’s such an honour, and it’s humbling. It’s an incredible feeling.

TDN: He covered some of the bluest bloods at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud earlier this year. You must be looking forward to seeing his foals hit the ground?

AZ: Correct. But sometimes this is a funny game. You never know which stallion is going to hit. I hope he’s as good in the breeding shed as he was on the racetrack. Because if anyone can do it, it’s this guy. His demeanor, his kindness, his tenacity, his heart, the way he moves. I mean we see today the real deal of Frosted. I was a very big fan of Frosted, and it tells you how good, and if anything it flatters American Pharoah. So his racing record speaks for itself. As for his legacy, well he’s going to write it. I’m very biased, and can’t say where he ranks, but if anybody believes in genetics, and genes. If not him, then I just don’t know.

TDN: You have campaigned a plethora of other talented racehorses in the U.S. over recent years. Paynter, Bodemeister, Eskendereya, Pioneerof the Nile, and Zensational to name but a few. Will we ever see your famous silks in Europe? Perhaps the Zoffany colt (lot 221) purchased for €140,000 at Arqana in partnership with Coolmore?

AZ: We are indeed embarking on taking our commitment to racing to another level, and you may very well see us in places we have not been before. There’s nothing more exciting than the bloodlines in Europe, Ireland and England, where you can get foundation broodmares. We are looking to participate. First, let me say we have been extremely fortunate to have been involved with some of the most talented and successful horses and stallions this millennium. Yet, it is deeply humbling to realize that our own rapid rise, in less than 10 years, stands in contrast to many far more established stables that have not seen similar levels of success, and certainly none quite as quickly. We have won over 700 races, $50 million in purses, and over 110 stakes and 65 graded stakes. We have been very, very fortunate and right now we are loving the game. We are, of course, also still living the dream American Pharoah, who, in our view, belongs as much to the industry and its fans as to Zayat Stables. Not that winning the Triple Crown wasn’t enough, it just made us even hungrier. Second, we have also by now witnessed and enjoyed the success of the progeny of our own horses (including Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah and now American Cleopatra, who just began her road to success with her first win). Third, we are also inspired by many of our horses who won graded races, but may not have won a Triple Crown race. As I say this, I am thinking of Paynter who was our last stallion. The sheer heart of this horse, the power he had fighting laminitis, and coming back to be a daddy is incredible. So, we have seen the highs and the lows of racing, and it has given my family a lot of pride. And, with Paynter too, we share the highs, lows, and then highs again of this wonderful stallion. The support of the fans throughout for us has always been the high point of this sport.

TDN: So what does the future hold for Zayat Stables?

AZ: Having said all of that, it is what drives us forward to build upon our successes in an innovative fashion and continue to grow our dream. We don’t need to be a jack of all trades, but we intend to grow upon what we know, building a more dynamic model in this industry. There have been some reports about us raising funds. That is true. But this is not merely a traditional racing syndicate in particular horses. I have tremendous respect for the syndicates, but this is a completely different venture where we are going to commit our own substantial funds in a new, improved, expanded Zayat Stables, and are speaking with some of the largest equity funds in the world who are looking for an entry point into this business. We will be using our industry expertise and skills in growing a larger enterprise that reaches deeper into what we have been doing, and expanding beyond the traditional four corners of what syndicates are known for by embracing all aspects of racing and breeding and related businesses. So, yes, in connection with that overall expansion, we have a whole vision of growing this space and as part of that we are looking towards international markets. You will probably see us active at Tattersalls and even Australia, and in France as well. We hope we can take our learning curve and experience in the U.S. and find European royal bloodlines that we can bring here to the states, and enrich the breeding over here to enhance the industry further. It’s going to hopefully grow the market and make it bigger for everyone in the industry, creating opportunities for everyone to grow their businesses as well. But, as I said, bringing good international bloodlines to the U.S. is only one part of it. I can tell you that in this interview, it is the first time that I’m speaking publicly about these plans. This vision is not something that came about overnight. Justin, I, and my team have thought about it for the last seven months; studying and making plans based on what we have learned during 10 years in the business. I have made a personal financial commitment to this new venture, committing personal funds far in excess of what I have so far invested so that Zayat Stables can become a real game changer for this industry.

TDN: That’s very interesting and thanks for sharing with TDN. So the plan for the new venture is to source bloodlines and bring them back to the U.S. and race elsewhere as well?

AZ: It’s going to be Zayat Stables in our silks, expanding it, with solid deep pockets and strong institutional support. Bringing good international bloodlines to the U.S. is only one part of it. We may also consider breeding in some international markets more than racing. As I told you, I expect it will be a combination of my own personal contributions and working with selected partners. We should be able to shape things according to the visions we have developed, and being properly managed all under our control, we will have a better, long-term vision of taking this opportunity to a different level. We will expand Zayat Stables’ equine investments. I can also confirm for the first time that we are looking at expanding into equine health services. We believe strongly as a longstanding customer that the best care for Thoroughbred horses is of long-term benefit to the whole equine industry.