American Pharaoh, a race horse owned by Egyptian-born Ahmed Zayat, became the first thoroughbred to capture the coveted Triple Crown in nearly four decades. Sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes for the first time since 1978, Pharaoh paid out big time for his Orthodox Jewish owner.
The win was something of a miracle for Zayat, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a neighborhood outside of Cairo. Egypt expelled its entire Jewish population in the 1950’s following the establishment of the State of Israel. The Egyptians confiscated all Jewish-owned property and reduced the Jewish population from a thriving community of more than 80,000 in 1948 to just 20 persons in 2014.
But the Zayat family not only survived the afflictions of modern Egypt, somehow they thrived. Zayat’s father was appointed as personal physician to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the family prospered while living in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Cairo.
As a young teenager, Ahmed Zayat, who always had a love for horses, won numerous national show jumping championships in Egypt – but instead of the traditional Arabic keffiyeh, Zayat rides wearing a yarmulke!
Today, Zayat owns 144 horses, and prior to American Pharaoh’s historic victories over the past weeks, he had watched his thoroughbreds suffer bitter defeat, coming in second in the Kentucky Derby three out of the last four years. In 2012, his horses finished second in each of the three Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
American Pharaoh has become one the biggest forces in horse racing history and is now said to be worth untold millions. Pharaoh may have had some Jewish mazal, or good fortune, working for him. It has been reported that the non-Jewish jockey who rode American Pharaoh to the celebrated Triple Crown victories visited the Lubavitcher rebbe’s grave to pray and ask for good luck.
So what is it like for an Orthodox Jewish family and friends to gather around the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby? “There is no conflict,” Mrs. Zayat said. “Most of our big races are on Saturdays, so we walk to the track. Shabbat is still Shabbat.”
Who would have imagined that an Orthodox Jewish family from Egypt would raise what has become the most prized race horse in modern times. I mean, after reading the Bible, who would have even thought to place a bet on Pharaoh? Go figure.