Justin Zayat Talks Solomini's Derby Chances and American Pharoah

Zayat Stables' Solomini makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's Rebel Stakes. (Zoe Metz photo)

Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the road to the Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs.

The series continues this week with Justin Zayat, president of racing and bloodstock for Zayat Stables. The Zayat family enjoyed the ultimate experience in the sport when their American Pharoah, overseen by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, ended a 37-year drought by winning the Triple Crown in 2015.

Now, the Zayats find themselves on a path that could wind back to Churchill Downs with Solomini ready to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. The son of Curlin, known for being a bit quirky, placed second to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before he was disqualified and dropped to third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity last Dec. 9.

PEDULLA: How is Solomini progressing?

ZAYAT: He’s maturing physically and mentally every single week, every single work. We’re coming in doing very well. We’re looking to run a very good race.

Solomini (outside) battles down the stretch of the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity.
Solomini (outside) battles down the stretch of the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. (Eclipse Sportswire)

PEDULLA: This horse has been a bit of a project, right?

ZAYAT: For sure. He’s a little immature here and there, sometimes switching his leads back and forth. He’s always done that, but he’s always shown up in the afternoon.

PEDULLA: How much of an advantage is it to have Bob Baffert training him?

ZAYAT: We’re in the hands of the Derby king. With Bob, we’ve had a long relationship together. We’ve had a lot of good horses together, a lot of good times together. We know we’re in the right hands with Bob. He is so detail-oriented. Bob likes a challenge, and Solomini is a bit of a challenge for him. The horse is doing really well.

PEDULLA: Solomini didn’t win, but did you feel good after the Juvenile?

ZAYAT: We felt very good after that race. He ran a really good race that day. Turning for home, he gave us a heck of a thrill. He came home strong down the lane, and that was encouraging.

PEDULLA: Obviously, it’s very difficult to have a horse good enough to compete in the Kentucky Derby. How hard has it been to be away from it the last couple of years?

ZAYAT: You look back and realize how hard it is to get to the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby and the classics are not the end all and be all for us. I have no problem winning the Haskell, Travers, Pennsylvania Derby, races like that. I try not to get myself hung up on the Kentucky Derby and the classic races. There are other important races than just three races (Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes) the entire year. Some horses just aren’t ready at that time.

Zayat leads American Pharoah into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
Zayat leads American Pharoah into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

PEDULLA: Is there any element of Solomini that reminds you of American Pharoah or do you not even go there with any comparison?

ZAYAT:  I don’t really go there with any comparison. Maybe personality-wise in the barn. American Pharoah was easy to be around, people friendly. Everyone loved him. Solomini is like that. Those are the only comparisons I see.

PEDULLA: How big is your operation at this point?

ZAYAT: We have 200-plus horses. We got into the industry as a racing operation, but now we’re racing and breeding.

PEDULLA: For you, how vivid is the Triple Crown and the whole run with American Pharoah?

ZAYAT: It feels like it was yesterday. I wake up every day thinking of Pharoah. We’re always aspiring to have the next one. I know it’s going to take a heck of a horse and I’m going to probably search a lifetime for him. But I have a goal and I’m going to try. 

PEDULLA: Are you optimistic you are going to get to the Derby with Solomini and maybe make some noise there?

ZAYAT: Yes, sir. That’s our feeling at the moment, but we’ll see as he starts racing (again). Right now, everything is looking good.

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