BALTIMORE — With his car pointed south on the New Jersey Turnpike on its way to Baltimore late Thursday afternoon, Justin Zayat, New York University Class of 2015, would have liked to have been able to say he turned his attention from his academic pursuits to the Preakness Stakes after his last final exam.
But in all honesty, Zayat did that many days ago. Heaven help his grade-point average.
It hasn’t been easy finding the time or summoning the focus to study for finals — not when Zayat, the racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables, saw American Pharoah win the Kentucky Derby 12 days ago, and not in the week leading up to the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown.
“It’s been kind of crazy, with all these people calling, and with managing the horses,” Zayat, 23, said by phone from his midtown Manhattan apartment. “Since the Derby, I probably haven’t slept more than two hours a night. I’m running on pure adrenaline. Trust me, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. It’s been a distraction, but it’s definitely been a good distraction.”
Take Wednesday. Zayat, an economics major, intended to spend the day studying for Thursday’s final in his 300-level Economic Development class. But by late afternoon, long after he had monitored by phone the shipping of several million dollars worth of horseflesh from Kentucky to Maryland, and mere hours after helping work out the details and logistics of the seven-figure sale of another Preakness contender, he realized it was time to tune in for the Preakness post-position draw.
And then, after American Pharoah drew the dreaded No. 1 spot along the rail, Zayat didn’t feel much like studying at all. This, after all, is the same emotional young executive whose initial reaction to winning the Kentucky Derby, in the grandstand at stately old Churchill Downs, was to double over and vomit.
“They’re going to make him earn it,” Zayat said of his horse’s unfavorable draw.
Zayat was introduced to the horse game as a 14-year-old, when his father, the Egyptian-American beverage magnate Ahmed Zayat, bought into the sport in 2005. At the time, the younger Zayat was a hockey- and baseball-obsessed teenager who turned the channel any time he saw horse racing on television. But it wasn’t long until the sport of kings got into his blood, the same way it had for his father.
“My dad and I kind of learned the sport together,” he said. “It was a steep learning curve. I just dove right into it. I’d be sitting in class researching horses, looking at the Daily Racing Form, past performances, the breeding. Anything to make myself more informed. When my friends would go home to watch ESPN or something, I’d go home and watch the horse racing channel. I’d go to Belmont [Park] on the weekends and listen to the trainers and owners talk.”
Three times, Zayat Stables saw one of its Derby hopefuls finish second in the sport’s biggest race. The first of these, Pioneerof the Nile (2009), would go on to sire the bay colt American Pharoah — Zayat Stables’s first fully homebred colt, and one so immediately impressive, Justin Zayat compared him to “watching LeBron James in first grade.”
The Zayats had enormous hopes for American Pharoah — his misspelled name the result of a typo submitted through a naming contest that somehow stuck — when they entered him in his first race, a 6
But going off as the 7-5 favorite, the colt faded badly down the stretch to a fifth-place finish, nine lengths back.
“It was like, ‘Oh, my God. What the [heck] happened?’ ” Zayat said. “I remember calling my dad and saying, ‘Dad, if we think this is our best horse, this is going to be the longest summer of our lives.’ ”
But American Pharoah hasn’t lost again in five races since that day. An eight-length win in the Arkansas Derby in April made him the favorite at Churchill Downs, and he justified the faith by breaking clean out of the 18th position, stalking the lead, then gunning from his position five-wide to run down Firing Line on the homestretch for a one-length win. The win was impressive enough that, even with his poor post draw here, Pharoah was installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Preakness.
“He’s like a better version of his dad,” Zayat said. “He lived up to who we thought he was. From day one, we knew he was a really good horse. But until they start running, it’s all speculation.”
Winning the Kentucky Derby is a life-changing proposition, never more so than when you are a college senior living in midtown Manhattan, and splitting your time between studying for finals and running a Triple Crown campaign out of your apartment.
“I’d walk around and random people would be coming up to me, congratulating me,” Zayat said of the Derby aftermath. “I got about 300 phone calls and texts. My first-grade teacher called me — I hadn’t heard from her in 10 or 15 years. It’s been surreal. It took a solid couple of days to sink in. I had to watch the race 100 times before I believed that that actually happened.”
As for his final exams, Zayat had a long-range plan for them. Realizing his finals would fall in the middle of Triple Crown season, he buckled down on his midterms and boosted his grades to the point where a sub-par showing on his finals wouldn’t sink his plans to graduate next Wednesday.
The unique blast of freedom that belongs to the college senior on the completion of his final final exam was felt even more acutely by Zayat. Heading south on the turnpike, accompanied by a handful of buddies, he could let his mind turn to American Pharoah without the slightest pang of guilt.
“Man,” he said, “I can’t wait to see him.”