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American Pharoah ends the near-misses for owner Ahmed Zayat

Owner Ahmed Zayat, right, and trainer Bob Baffert

Owner Ahmed Zayat, right, and trainer Bob Baffert celebrate in the winner's circle after their horse, American Pharoah, won the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16, 2015 in Baltimore. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

Ask any owner and they'll tell you there's no greater thrill than watching your horse finish first. When you've bred the winner of a world-famous race from a mare (Littleprincessemma) named for your daughter, it's the Mount Everest of peak experiences.

That was the vibe Ahmed Zayat tried to process Saturday after his 3-year-old superstar American Pharoah dominated the Preakness Stakes by seven lengths to put him one win away from the first Triple Crown since 1978.

The 52-year-old New Jersey entrepreneur and his colt cleaned up on a sloppy track amid a driving rain, earning $900,000 and a shot at immortality. The miserable conditions at Pimlico didn't matter, because all was bright within Zayat. For him, his wife, Joanne, and their children, Justin, Ashley, Benjamin and Emma, it was sunshine for the soul.

"It's absolute elation," Ahmed Zayat said. "The sport without a star is not a sport, and this is just an unbelievable honor and thrill for us. Now, God willing, if he comes out of his race well, we could be talking about history. How could I be more happy than that?"

Hard to imagine, especially after all of the Derby near-misses the Cairo native endured. In 2009, Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah's sire, was runner-up to 50-1 shot Mine That Bird. In 2010, injury derailed Zayat's consensus favorite, Eskendereya, six days before the race. In 2011, his Nehro ran second.

The racing gods had just begun to torment Zayat, because against all odds, it got worse. In 2012, it was the Pick 3 of Anguish at Belmont Park after the Daily Double of Doom. In both the Derby and the Preakness, Bodemeister led by three lengths at the eighth pole before I'll Have Another nailed him. In the Belmont, Paynter went down, compromised by a Hall of Fame jockey's rookie mistake. Ahead by a length a furlong from the wire, Mike Smith left the rail open, and Union Rags shot through to get up by a neck.

"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?" said an exasperated Bob Baffert, trainer of Bodemeister, Paynter and American Pharoah.

Zayat, who is Jewish, had become racing's version of the Old Testament's long-suffering Job. After winning the Derby, the clouds disappeared. "It doesn't get any better," he said. If American Pharoah wins the Belmont, it will. Justin Zayat, his father's racing manager, told on Monday there has been interest from "almost every breeding farm in the world . . . with offers north of $20 million."

A Kentucky pedigree analyst told Newsday "my best guess" is that a Triple Crown winner would stand for $75,000 or $100,000 per mating. The fee for Tapit, sire of last year's Belmont winner, Tonalist, is $300,000.

"It still hasn't sunk in that we won the Derby, let alone now the Preakness," Ahmed Zayat said. "It's been an unbelievable ride."

The bumpiest part will come June 6, because the last 13 Derby-Preakness winners fell short at Belmont Park. Baffert thinks Pharoah has an edge over his three Belmont disappointments, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. "He's quicker, with an effortless stride, like a deer," he said. "He just has a power."

Zayat feels it. "American Pharoah is very different from all the horses I've had," he said. "Day One I felt he had brilliance to him -- his demeanor, his aura, his conformation."

After the Preakness, Zayat said, "He put on a show today, nobody could get close to him."

Pulling his chain, Baffert said, "I thought you said you weren't going to hype the horse."

"No, I'm not," Zayat said. "I'm stating facts. Facts are not hype."


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