A high-pitched cascade of laughter cuts through the usual clamor of Kentucky Derby week, and you just know someone is having the time of his life.
It's Ahmed Zayat, and why shouldn't the Egyptian-born former beverage company CEO be enjoying himself? Two of his horses are scheduled to run in the 141st Derby, including the 5-2 morning-line favorite, American Pharoah. He would have had three, but El Kabeir was scratched Friday afternoon because of a tender spot on his left front foot, leaving the Derby field at 19 horses.
"How couldn't I be having the most fun?" said Zayat, who also owns Mr. Z. "I have the favorite, and he's doing everything right. … In a crop of 20,000 foals, only 20 can make it here. When you have [two] in the gate, it's just a blessing."
As the product of a prominent Egyptian family, Zayat grew up around horses, both at his exclusive private school and on his parents' land. He moved to the United States to attend Harvard as an undergraduate and, in his words, quickly realized he never wanted to leave. Corporate life took him away from horses, but as he approached retirement, his mother suggested thoroughbred racing might be a perfect outlet for his passion.
"I'm kind of an addictive personality, so I couldn't do something with one or two horses," said the New Jersey resident and father of four. "I'm an all-in kind of guy."
Zayat keeps about 200 horses in stables around the country, working with many of the elite trainers in the sport.
His hefty investments paid off quickly, with his stables producing multiple stakes winners from 2006 on. But the Kentucky Derby emerged as a source of some heartache. Since 2009, three of Zayat's horses — including American Pharoah's sire, Pioneerof the Nile — have finished second on the grandest stage in American racing. Another potential Derby favorite, Eskendereya, had to scratch the Sunday before the race because of a career-ending leg injury.
"Nobody's had more beatdowns here than Zayat," said American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert.
American Pharoah already has claimed a unique place in Zayat's heart. The brilliant colt is homebred and, beyond that, a son of Pioneerof the Nile, Zayat's first homebred to win a Grade 1 stakes and the 2009 Derby runner-up.
"Imagine what kind of Cinderella story that would be, if the son were to claim revenge for his dad," Zayat said, beaming. "For me, it's very sentimental."
Churchill Downs was widely criticized for a perceived lack of hospitality last year, with the harshest shot coming from Steve Coburn, co-owner of 2014 Derby champion California Chrome.
Track officials say they've tried to respond this year, spending $4.2 million to create 18-seat suites for the owners of each Derby horse and borrowing from the Preakness Stakes the practice of assigning a driver to the connections of each horse.
"When people, whether it's public or private, mention something to us, we try to listen and do something about it," Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said. "Sure, we took that to heart and looked at what we did and went to work on making it better."
He said Churchill Downs officials looked at the best hospitality practices from other Triple Crown tracks and copied some.
"I don't think every criticism was a fair criticism, but some of them were," Asher said. "I'm anxious to hear what people say after this year's Derby."
The early feedback has been favorable.
"Churchill has done great this year," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of 15-1 morning-line choice Frosted. "I'm a Kentucky native, and I've been here for a lot of years. I'm very, very pleased with the changes they've made, and they deserve a pat on the back."
It was at last year's Preakness where Coburn fired his salvo at Churchill Downs, saying he had enjoyed a far more pleasant week in Baltimore. "I honestly believe that it was a bad, bad day at Churchill," he said. "Even though we won, it was a bad day for my partner and his family."
Churchill Downs also took criticism from Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte for what he called poor treatment at last year's Derby.
Lovely Maria won the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, the Friday showdown of top 3-year-old fillies that serves as the second biggest race of Derby week.
The 5-1 fourth choice in the morning line won $570,400 and gave trainer Larry Jones his third Oaks victory. Lovely Maria, ridden by 56-year-old Kerwin Clark, finished ahead of Shook Up and Jones' other entry, I'm a Chatterbox.