Home stretch: A Q&A with American Pharoah manager Justin Zayat
Horse racing is often considered the sport of a bygone generation. So it’s surprising that the racing manager of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years just graduated college this year. Justin Zayat has managed the horses of his father Ahmed’s Zayat Stables since 2012, including American Pharoah, who completed the Triple Crown at his home course of Belmont in June. Now the most famous horse in the world is preparing for his final race, the Breeders' Cup. Zayat, a native of the New York metropolitan area, sat down with City & State’s Jeremy Unger to discuss the end of American Pharoah’s career, whether the New York Racing Association board should cede control to private leadership, and his favorite racetrack in the world.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: How has your life changed and how has life changed for your family since American Pharoah won the Triple Crown?
Justin Zayat: It’s been completely different. Especially the weeks right after the race. It’s been crazy from the day that he won the Belmont Stakes – which was like the greatest day of my whole entire life – until today, now that he’s prepping for his last race. It’s been unbelievable. I go to New York City and people look and say “Hey, it’s Horse-boy,” so it went from not being recognized on the street at all to being recognized by people who were watching the races at the time or who were following American Pharoah win the Triple Crown. We obviously became more well-known, but in the racing industry it’s completely different. Wherever I go, if I’m in Kentucky or in anywhere, everyone just stands up and claps. You just see how appreciative that everyone was of such a horse. So many people just gravitated towards this horse and feel a connection to him.
C&S: A lot of horse commentators talk about how a great horse comes from an excellent breeding line or just the raw speed or power of the animal. What for you stands out the most about American Pharoah?
JZ: This sounds really clichéd, but how really easily things come to him. What amazes me every day and what I would take away from American Pharoah as a life lesson is, you know, this horse goes out every single day and trains and trains awesome. Every single day I get a call from my trainer Bob and he’s just like, “Wow. Pharoah was amazing out there.” If you’re into horses you know no horse has been 100 percent and unbelievable every single day, day in and out. This horse doesn’t care if there’s a hurricane outside or if it's the most beautiful weather – he’ll just go out and train. He’s always has a great mentality and that’s something that really stuck out to me. His brilliance, how easily things come to him and just his consistency on a day-to-day basis.
C&S: There’s been a lot of talk about the best track in the country and a lot of people argue it’s Saratoga, even though it’s not included in the Triple Crown. Do you personally favor a track or think one is tougher than the rest?
JZ: That is tough. Belmont is a favorite track of mine because it’s so close to the city. I grew up going there all the time, I still go there every week. It’s my hometown track. That’s what was so cool about the Belmont stakes, the Triple Crown, everything, because it was right in New York where I was all the time. On a prestige level, when you go to Saratoga, there’s no more prestigious racing in all the world than Saratoga. It’s the boutique race, the race of the summer. It’s like the Hamptons in the summer, all the families come up in the summer and just want to win a race in Saratoga. Anytime you win a race, it can be a small race or a big race, it’s always going to end up being a big win for you just because of where the location is. But my favorite, favorite personal track is Del Mar in California, because you can’t beat the weather in the summer, it's right near the beach, where the turf meets the surf, and you can’t beat the vibe there. I’m there for the whole entire month of August. But Belmont holds a close second in my heart because I’m there all the time and it’s my home track.
C&S: There have been a lot of questions recently about the future of the New York Racing Association and racing in general in New York. New York state controls the board of the association and the races. Do you and does your stable worry about that situation?
JZ: It’s hard for me to comment on that because I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations and I don’t see how NYRA is run on a day-to-day basis. I can tell you since Chris Kay came into office in the last year as their new president, NYRA has just seen a big turnaround as an organization. The quality of racing is better, they built new barns at the tracks now, the facilities are looking better, so I think, overall, New York racing is on a big rise. The purses are up here, and you can’t compete with better purses than in New York state. They have the best purses, they’re getting a lot of the great horses out here. I don’t think racing is in as big of a trouble as everyone makes it seem. Maybe the attendance is not what everyone wants it to be on a day-to-day basis, we can work on attendance together, there are some ways we can work on that. But I think racing, especially since the Triple Crown also, has taken a big boom from it. They call it “the Pharoah effect.” It gave racing the shot in the arm that it needed. If people came out to Saratoga the week of the Travers, you’d say, “Wow, people say racing is bad here? No way.” We had 20,000 people come out at 7 a.m. in the morning, just to watch American Pharoah train. That’s what this horse did. It brought people back to the tracks again, which is what people love.
C&S: A lot of people now are talking about whether this is a turning point for horse racing. You’re young, you just graduated from college and you’re in a unique situation because you’re in a generation that doesn’t have the the affection for racing that previous generations did. What do you think needs to be changed to bring horse racing back to what it once was?
JZ: It’s harder these days. It’s a lot harder than it was back then and there’s a lot of reasons for that, especially on the younger sides of things. It’s very hard to grow up as a horse racing fan if you’re not an owner of a horse or if you haven’t fallen in love with a horse right away to become a fan. Personally, my family got in the business when I was in eighth grade, so I have had years to grow into horse racing, let me tell you. But I also love baseball, basketball, all those sports. It’s because I grew up being able to play those sports. Horse racing is not a sport where you can go, “Hey mom and dad I want to go race my horse against my friends.” You can’t do that. So it’s very hard to fall in love with a sport that you can’t physically play yourself. So once you’re 18 and you’re able to gamble, people start falling in love with it for the gambling reasons and then they start getting into it for the horses. But I really think that people need to be able to get out to the track, and see horses like American Pharoah. This is a prime example with American Pharoah, there’s so many younger folks and kids who fell in love with this horse and now they want to get horses. So now they start following the other stables’ horses. It’s very hard to get into the sport if you didn’t find some sort of unique angle into loving racing. So that’s one problem. And I think American Pharoah helped in that way. Also, what makes a difference is horses are only around for “X” amount of time. They only race one, two, three years, four years maximum. It’s not like LeBron James, who has been playing for 10, 12 years of basketball, so it’s hard to follow a career of a horse as well. That’s also become a little better. The longevity has recently been picking up in horses. Also, Twitter and social media has been a really big change in horse racing. Twitter has really helped by helping get people more attached to horses. Before Twitter came along, racing wasn’t really transparent. The average fan wouldn’t have a clue what was going on with the horses at Zayat Stables. But nowadays, the average fan could tweet at me and I happen to respond to people on Twitter who ask questions about our horses so they get more information and it draws more people in. Now for college kids, you can make different promotions at the track to get them there, like scholarship giveaways, bring your fraternity to the track, have a little event here. Horses are something that can market itself. If we did Saturday night racing at Belmont Park, and everyone came from the city for the night racing that would be fun, but they haven’t thought to do that. Or like with kids from places like NYU where I went to college, they could reach out to them, who maybe don’t want to go to a bar or a club on a Saturday night, they want a more low-key night, they could go out to Belmont, just 30 minutes away and have a nice day of racing. So there are ways they could work around it.
C&S: You’re going into the Breeders' Cup and it’s the last race for American Pharoah. How are you going to feel, regardless of the results, when you see him cross the finish line?
JZ: It’s going to be sad. I’m sure at first there will be a little relief because there’s so much pressure going into these races. But I just want him to run well for himself. I don’t want him to go out on a low note, I want him to close out his career on a high note. But at the end of the race when he crosses the finish line that all goes in the garbage – who cares whatever happened at that point? So it’s going to be sad for me to see his last race, the last time the saddle goes on his back, a rider on his back, all those things. I’ve literally been watching American Pharoah since the day he was born, not like the average fan that started watching him this year. Now luckily I don’t have any kids yet, but it must be like watching your kids grow up and one getting married and moving out of the house and starting a new life. We’ve raised this guy from the time he was a baby, to winning the Triple Crown, to taking our family through all the great months that we’ve had, and it’s all coming to an end now. But then again, knock on wood, it’s about 17 days out, I’m just hoping he gets there happy and healthy and in one piece and comes out happy and sound. That’s really what I want for him at the end of the day, it’s more important than just running the race. I just want him to come out healthy and enjoy his next career, because he owes nothing to any of us and we owe the world to him.