The Whitney Invitational Handicap (aka the Whitney Stakes) is a race steeped in tradition. You don't really need to say much more than this: Secretariat ran in the Whitney and finished second in 1973.
Every summer, some of the best horses in thoroughbred racing, ages 3 and up, run nine furlongs at the historic, 151-year-old Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. While the fields are always competitive, and the horses’ connections are often wildly interesting, this Saturday's Whitney may feature the most diverse set of owners in the race's 86-year history.
“You've got guys with nine-to-five jobs participating, basically, with kings and queens, rulers of countries, [and also] competing with the old family money, legendary Kentucky stables,” says Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds, a Saratoga-based racing syndicate. “It's representative of the fact that anyone and anybody can participate at the top level of our sport and do well.”
Among the horses scheduled to run the Whitney are: Itsmyluckyday, owned by the husband and wife team of David and Olga Melin; Romansh, owned by Godolphin Racing, the competitive arm of the thoroughbred operation founded by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai; Departing, owned by bluegrass titan Claiborne Farm, which has been breeding and racing horses for more than a century; Will Take Charge, owned by an old cowboy named Willie Horton; Moreno, owned by Mike Moreno, who runs a Houston-based oil, gas and construction business; and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, owned by Dogwood Stable, which is notable for being horse racing's first syndicate.
And then there's Prayer for Relief, a 6-year-old stallion owned Zayat Racing Stables, of Hackensack, N.J. The stables were founded nine years ago by Ahmed Zayat, who built a nonalcoholic beverage distributorship in his native Egypt and then sold it to Heineken for $280 million in 2002. He remained a member of the company’s board until ’08, when Zayat Stables was the top owner in the sport. In the process, Zayat transformed his oldest son, Justin, from a basketball- and baseball-loving kid into a horse racing fanatic.
“My father decided he'd been traveling so long that it was time to relax,” says Justin, a 22-year old senior at New York University who is also the racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables. “For 10 years, he would work six days in Cairo, fly home for a day or two, then fly back to Cairo for another six days. My grandmother convinced him to try horse racing. His whole life he'd grown up riding show horses, jumping. When he got into racing, he just started buying horses. My dad could never do anything halfway. At first ... it was the weirdest thing in the world. One day he said, “Come with me. You're going to like this. These are amazing animals.” So I watched my first race and ever since then I was hooked. I started doing research and growing up in the game.”
The Zayats have owned some terrific horses, including Bodemeister, who ran second in both the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and earned more than $1.3 million on the track. (In addition to Bodemeister, two other horses owned by the family have also finished second in the Derby—Pioneerof the Nile in ’09 and Nehro in ’11.) But when Justin talks about Prayer for Relief, who has yet to win this year but ran second in the Pimlico Special on May 16 and third in the Suburban Handicap on July 5, it's clear that the horse is special to him.
“His longevity alone is pretty special,” says Justin. “He’s in his fifth season of racing for us. We bought him for $80,000. He doesn’t have a flashy pedigree like some of the horses you’ll see in the Whitney, but he’s got an unbelievable record. He’s a regal horse. He’s had 31 starts, eight wins, six seconds and six thirds. So, [in] 20 of his 31 starts he’s been in the money. He’s made us $1.7 million.”
But to win at Saratoga on Saturday and earn a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Prayer for Release is going to have to beat some stiff competition. Justin says it’s a field befitting the race’s $1.5 million purse and he points out that Palace Malice has not lost a race this year, while Will Take Charge is also on form and has already won at Saratoga, having prevailed in the Travers Stakes last summer. Will Take Charge is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who Justin calls, “A legend.”
“[The Whitney is] one of the most prestigious races of the year,” says Justin. “It’s a Grade I race. It’s the highest level of racing, just like the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup. And when I look at Prayer for Release, the only thing missing from his resume is he’s never won a Grade I race. That’s why I’m running him here. And I think he’s got a good chance. This horse always shows up and I really believe he’ll be right there at the end.”
When he talks, Justin punctuates each thought with a giggle, as if he’s saying, “Can you believe I do this?”
“I”m going into my senior year at NYU and I’m an economics major,” he says. “Which is good, I guess, for a kid who’s managing millions and millions of dollars worth of horses. I’m the manager. I choose the races, speak to the veterinarians, the trainers, the jockeys, every single thing that goes into the operation, I take care of it. I’m a lucky kid, but it’s all a credit to my dad. He made all this possible and I want to make him proud.”
A win—or even a place or show—in the Whitney would certainly make dad proud.
“We know this is a big one, with a lot of great horses, a lot of great owners from so many different backgrounds,” says Justin. “This is just about as good as it gets in our sport, at a racetrack that is so special and historic. As always, we’ll do our best, but we’re also very respectful of the competition. I think all of us have one thing in common and it’s that we all live in the moment. It’s all about that time during the race.”
|date||network||time (et)||race||track||winner qualifies for||post times (et)|
|August 2||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Whitney Handicap||Saratoga Race Course||Breeders' Cup Classic||5:45 p.m.|
|August 23||NBC||4:30 p.m.||Ballerina Stakes||Saratoga Race Course||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint||5:08 p.m.|
|August 24||NBCSN||8:00 p.m.||Pacific Classic||Del Mar Thoroughbred Club||Breeders' Cup Classic||8:44 p.m.|
|August 30||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Forego Stakes||Saratoga Race Course||Breeders' Cup Sprint||6:45 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Jockey Club Gold Cup||Belmont Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||6:08 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||6:30 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||7:05 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Awesome Again Stakes||Santa Anita Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||7:45 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Jenny Wiley Stakes||Keeneland||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf||4:35 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Breeders' Futurity||Keeneland||Breeders' Cup Juvenile||5:08 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Shadwell Mile||Keeneland||Breeders' Cup Mile||5:45 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Bourbon Stakes||Keeneland||Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf||5:08 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Spinster Stakes||Keeneland||Breeders' Cup Distaff||5:45 p.m.|