(All photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire, unless otherwise noted)
This did not go according to plan. This was supposed to be another valedictory diary – a chronological review of a triumphant day in the life of Justin Zayat, the 23-year-old racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables – owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. This was supposed to come after a victory in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes here at Saratoga Race Course – another step on the way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But then came Keen Ice to follow in the footsteps of Upset and Onion and Jim Dandy, other shocking winners at Saratoga. His win over American Pharoah on Saturday changed everything. What follows, then is a series of moments – coincidences, really – that might be taken as omens – signs of things to come at the “Graveyard of Champions” as America’s Best Racing followed Justin Zayat throughout this fateful day.
In the Zayats’ box – the only such owners enclosure at Saratoga that is air-conditioned.
“It’s a lower-key group. Now, it’s just our family this time. It’s nice. This is the smallest crew that we’ve brought to any of the races that we’ve done so far with Pharoah.”
In the Zayats’ box, where the food choice is sushi.
“It’s more of the pressure of the day in general today. What is everyone expecting right now? They’re expecting Pharoah to win. My experience in racing is when everyone is hoping for something, it never happens.”
JUSTIN ZAYAT WITH SARATOGA SOCIALITE MICHELE RIGGI
Photo by Ron Flatter
On the walk from the grandstand to the paddock, as he is getting a good many cheers of “Go Pharoah,” Zayat is asked about his gray-blue suit, his purple shirt and paisley tie. He is not wearing his favorite label – Ermenegildo Zegna.
“Today, I’m Hugo Boss. The truth is I went back to California, and I didn’t have a suit. I thought I would go home to New York before the Travers. I didn’t know we were coming right away. I had to go and hustle in the mall [near San Diego] and buy a suit four days ago, right after Pharoah’s workout. I got it tailored right away.”
In the paddock before the fifth race – a maiden special weight race – in which Zayat and his family have a 3-year-old gray colt named Good Street, trained by D. Wayne Lukas.
“This horse might be a little bit short in this race,” Lukas said.
“I agree,” Zayat said. “He’s a big boy. A nice horse.”
“I still remember the first time I rode him,” jockey Joe Bravo told them. “You said how much you loved him. He looks like he matured into himself.”
“He might be a tad short, so if you’re in contention give him a little separation if you can,” Lukas said. “We’ll see what happens. After what’s coming up in the 11th race [the Travers], there’s no way this can spoil it.”
The walk takes Zayat and his family back to their air-conditioned enclosure.
“This is a little dress rehearsal in some ways.”
Off at 44-1, Good Street finished last.
MASSIVE SARATOGA CROWD
Back in the paddock of anxious waiting, Zayat is standing with Bode Baffert, the 10-year-old son of American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert.
“I’m nervous. I’m excited,” Zayat said. “I’m so many things. Bode told me his stomach hurts. (laughs) Nerves. The nerves. Everyone’s in the same boat. I just got here. [Younger brother] Ben is washed out. Ben needs a Xanax. (laughs) My horse is coming now.”
Cheers begin to circle the perimeter of the paddock as American Pharoah is walked in. Wherever Pharoah walks, fans follow. Zayat and his family take up a position, though, away from him.
After posing for photos and getting congratulations – mostly from guests of other owners – Zayat marshals his family through the clogged throng from the paddock back to their box. One security guard takes a tumble on a stairwell trying to separate the owners from the hangers on.
Standing in the grandstand below their enclosure, Zayat and his family are crowded into a small box squeezed in by onlookers who want to be near them.
Zayat is looking up the stretch to the filling starting gate.
“The last horse is in. Pharoah is bobbing his head. He’s bobbing his head. He’s good. He’s good.”
The race has started, and after a quarter-mile, American Pharoah leads Frosted by a length. Zayat is watching the clock.
“24 1/5. 24 1/5. He’s OK. He’s OK. He’s OK from here, guys.”
A quarter mile later, Pharoah’s lead is a half-length over Frosted. Zayat is briefly encouraged.
“Here we go. 48 1/5. He’s doing good.”
With a half-mile to go, the clock reads 1:11 2/5. Pharoah’s lead over Frosted is down to a head. Zayat thinks about jockey Víctor Espinoza.
“Let’s go, Víctor. Let him go.”
With a quarter-mile to go, Frosted briefly takes the lead, but then Pharoah answers and passes him. Zayat breaks his nervous silence.
“Go, Pharoah! Come on, Pharoah!”
Suddenly, Keen Ice finishes his charge from five lengths behind to take the lead in the last 100 yards. Zayat is quiet as Pharoah is beaten by three-quarters of a length.
A woman tells Zayat amid the loud murmuring from the crowd, “It’s all right. It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s all good.”
KEEN ICE PASSES AMERICAN PHAROAH
The Zayats quietly walk back into the enclosure where they had been earlier. Baffert is speaking to reporters.
“You could tell he wasn’t doing it,” Baffert said. “He can handle that kind of pressure. He was all guts and glory and fighting to come back, but he wasn’t like the Pharoah that we know. You have to give the Zayats a lot of credit for taking a shot.”
Zayat and his family join Baffert and Espinoza for a more formal news conference in a tent near the jockeys’ room downstairs behind the grandstand. After his father, Baffert and Espinoza spoke, Zayat punctuated the session.
“I’m speechless. I’m proud of American Pharoah. You saw the fans come out, how they were chasing him through the paddock and the joy he brought to everyone. He ran his race. We were the second-best horse today. Keen Ice ran a hell of a race. He was chasing us the last couple of races, and he got us today.”
PHAROAH FAN AT SARATOGA
Seated in a golf cart near the jockeys’ room, Zayat had some final thoughts, first about taking part in a news conference after a loss.
“For sure you want to sit back and cry that you lost, but you’ve got to accept that it’s a part of racing. We’ve taken bad losses before. The horse owes us nothing as I’ve said. Today wasn’t his day. That’s why it’s called the ‘Graveyard of Favorites,’ but it wasn’t the track that beat him. Who knows? He ran hard. Maybe the shipping took it out of him. It didn’t look like it to us. Maybe it just caught up with him today.”
Zayat realized he was not cheering much during the race.
“I never felt that we had it at all during the race today. When I saw Frosted on him and I saw 1:11, I knew it was either going to be like the Kentucky Derby and he was going to have to dig deep, or it wasn’t going to be his day. When I saw him put away Frosted, I saw Keen Ice coming and I knew it was over.”
Zayat knew this would be difficult to swallow – and not just for Team Pharoah.
“Everyone came out here for a reason. They wanted to see American Pharoah win, and then he ran second. I’m disappointed for American Pharoah and the fans, but I’m not disappointed for myself. I wanted it for the sport, and it just didn’t happen.”
Now walking with his family on the way back to the grandstand, Zayat is asked about his father’s post-race comment that “if the horse showed me that he tailed off and he’s not the Pharoah that I know, then there’s no question in my mind that the right thing is to retire him.”
“I’ve said before this could always be his last race. The fan in me doesn’t want to retire him, but this is for the horse. Sometimes, you’ve got to listen to him, and if he’s telling us he comes back, he’s extremely tired, he’s not training, he’s pinning back his ears, and then we’ll decide. We’ll know, I guess, in a week, a week and a half. We’ll ship him back. We’ll sit down as a team and decide.”
About the flight back to California within the next three hours.
“It’ll probably be long and a little quiet, but we’re going to talk with Víctor. We’ll get his thoughts on exactly what happened. I guess we’ll have a clearer picture from there also.”