By Sid Fernando
Three of the first four finishers in the Gl Kentucky Derby were owned by Middle Eastern entities. The beaten favorite in fourth, Essential Quality (Tapit), races for the global Godolphin operation of UAE's Sheikh Mohammed, whose recently deceased brother Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell had won the GI Longines Kentucky Oaks a day earlier with Malathaat (Curlin). The Derby runner-up, Mandaloun (Into Mischief), flies the famous green and pink silks of Juddmonte, whose longtime owner, Saudi businessman Prince Khalid Abdullah, passed away earlier this year but whose future rests with his eldest son, Prince Fahd, who now runs his late father's business empire, The Mawarid Group of Companies. The winner of the Classic, the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (Protonico), is owned by a relative newcomer on the scene, Zedan Racing, the stable of Saudi businessman Amr Zedan, who cut a dash in Louisville. He made an unexpectedly refreshing speech that was both eloquently candid and humble while accepting the trophy.
We're not used to hearing many Middle Eastern owners speak in the winner's circle these days, except for Amer Abdulaziz of Phoenix Thoroughbreds, and he seems to be in a bit of trouble. When Godolphin or Shadwell wins a big race over here, their respective surrogates Jimmy Bell and Rick Nichols utter a few words on behalf of their patrons. Likewise, Juddmonte's U.S. representative Garrett O'Rourke spoke for Khalid Abdullah and presumably would have done the same on behalf of his son had Mandaloun caught Medina Spirit in the Derby, but you get the idea.
Moreover, the region and some of its principals have taken an international PR beating lately and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has had his once-promising reputation irreparably sullied by being implicated in the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. On the racing front, the Saudis have handled the Maximum Security (New Year's Day) affair atrociously–has this colt been disqualified or not, 14 months later?–and its proceedings on the matter have been cloaked in secrecy to the consternation of many, including the colt's owners, the Coolmore partners and Gary and Mary West. The Wests, of course, bred and own Concert Tour (Street Sense), one of Baffert's big guns and a possible rival to Medina Spirit in the GI PreaknessS.
You have to go back to the 2002 Derby to find a comparable to Amr Zedan–and to Medina Spirit, for that matter. That year, Baffert trained winner War Emblem (Our Emblem) for The Thoroughbred Corp. of Saudi businessman Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a gregarious, self-deprecating, and enthusiastic owner who was accessible like Amr Zedan and gave Middle Eastern ownership a pulse that resonated here. Baffert and Ahmed bin Salman got along great and the record seven-time Derby-winning trainer seems to have a similarly jocular relationship with Zedan. And remember this? War Emblem, a dark bay colt like Medina Spirit who also was by an unproven sire, led wire-to-wire to win the Derby at generous odds, 20-1–even longer than the 12-1 of the Zedan frontrunner in the Classic.
Ahmed bin Salman, who wore an ever-present smile under his trademark black mustache, was the first Arab owner to win the Derby. War Emblem also won the Preakness. The year before, Ahmed bin Salman had won the Preakness and GI Belmont S. with Point Given, giving him a sweep of all three U.S. Classics in a short but illustrious tenure as an owner. Like Amr Zedan, Ahmed bin Salman was educated in the U.S. and the Kentucky Derby had been a longtime goal. He was 43 when he won the Classic, a few months before he tragically died of a heart attack in Saudi Arabia.
Based in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Jordan, Amr Zedan is 46 and has the swashbuckling looks of an old-time movie star to him, replete with mustache and slicked-back hair. He was born in California, where his parents attended USC, and later moved back to Saudi Arabia before returning to the U.S. to attend college, first at Texas A&M and then later at the University of Stockton in California, from where he graduated. “You can tell from my accent that I'm somewhat American,” Zedan said via phone on Monday, shortly after he'd returned to the Middle East on a 10-hour flight, tired but satisfied.
Baffert calls him a “super cool guy,” and he looks like he lives the life of one in his Instagram posts. He's married to Princess Noor bint Asem of Jordan, plays polo with gusto on a team he owns in Dubai, is a philanthropist, and runs his family's Zedan Group, an energy-focused collection of companies of which he's the chairman.
I asked Zedan how he'd been so composed when speaking during the trophy presentation. “Well, I was very emotional in the box. I lost my voice, because I was really cheering and all that. I was actually with my brother-in-law and I was almost on my knees. I was just thanking God, because if you've ever doubted that there's a higher being, whatever you believe in–in my case it's God–it's that moment when you realize everything needs to be aligned, and it's only by that divine power that you have this. You just get blessed, and everything comes to fruition. So, I was emotional, but the moment I walked out [of the box], I just called my dad and said, 'Dad, we did it,' and he said, as I was walking to the winner's circle across the track, 'Son, congratulations. Let's be humble about this. Get yourself together.'”
Getting Together with Baffert
Much has already been written about Amr Zedan's chance encounter with Baffert at the Dubai airport when Zedan was on his way to Jordan and Baffert was on a layover en route to Saudi Arabia to saddle Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man)–owned by Saudi Arabia's Prince Faisal bin Khaled–and McKinzie (Street Sense) in the inaugural Saudi Cup last year. That informal meeting laid the groundwork for what was to follow with the extraordinary purchases of subsequent Grade I winners Princess Noor (Not This Time), his wife's namesake, and Medina Spirit, but Zedan said he'd met Baffert several times earlier as well when he was first getting into the game, which he originally did with an ownership interest in California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) when the colt was under Taylor Made management, and later with a foray into auction buying with brothers Dennis and Doug O'Neill.
Zedan had taken a position in California Chrome just weeks before the horse won the 2016 G1 Dubai World Cup and that had spoiled him, he said. “The investment made sense and it gave me the opportunity to check out the sport and come at a high-entry level. Obviously, he won, and that was good and bad. You get the taste of success, but you think any horse you buy can become an automatic Grade I winner. Little did you know that it takes a lot of money, sweat, and rigorous activities to find that diamond in the rough, and that took me basically some time to achieve.”
Relatively speaking, it didn't take that long, because here he is five years later with a Kentucky Derby winner that cost him $35,000 at last year's OBS July sale, although he did pay a sale-topping $1.35 million for Princess Noor a month earlier at the pandemic-delayed OBS Spring sale. But between California Chrome and now, he did have some busts with the O'Neills, including the purchase of a $710,000 Orb colt at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale in May of 2017. Named Alfareed, that colt has since been gelded and earned less than Medina Spirit cost.
Zedan stressed, however, that there's no bad blood between him and the O'Neills, who were rooting for their colt Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow) in the adjacent box as vigorously as Zedan and his people were for their colt. After the race, Dennis O'Neill was as gracious as Zedan, tweeting: “Congratulations to Amr Zedan!!! Super classy man and great to see him win the big race.”
During the period with the O'Neills, Zedan first met Baffert on a trip to Del Mar. “We just said hello, et cetera, and that was an opportunity just to get acquainted. And then right after that, we bumped into each other at the Dubai World Cup. So, we just had a small chat and we exchanged numbers. And then, after that, I called Bob and said, 'I'm thinking of coming back into the sport, and I really want to do it with you.' You know, Bob is just an amazing guy. And I don't mean to blow smoke up his rear end, but Bob is all heart, and people who don't know him don't know this. He is a good, good, good man, and that's something I'd like for you to quote. He is someone who will surprise you as to how he will take your best interests to heart. So, we hit it off very well, and then, by coincidence, we bumped into each other at the airport again.”
And no doubt by now you're familiar with the rest of the story about how this partnership that started 15 months ago resulted in the Derby win on Saturday.
Baffert had advised Amr Zedan to get an agent, and Zedan picked ace clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young by word of mouth from jockey Victor Espinoza, who Zedan had gotten to know. Espinoza was the rider of War Emblem and California Chrome, not to mention American Pharoah. Young, who fills the role of racing manager for Zedan Racing, was, of course, pivotal in the acquisitions of both Princess Noor, a standout breezer, and Medina Spirit, though both horses had been originally mentioned to Zedan by Chilean Oussama Aboughazale, who'd bred Princess Noor and stands Protonico (Giant's Causeway), the sire of Medina Spirit.
Aboughazale owns Haras Sumaya in Chile and a farm in Kentucky, and his family is a major shareholder in Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc., which is reportedly the third-largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. He is of Middle Eastern descent and treats Zedan as a son, Zedan said. “I'm 46, he's about 76, 77. He's a good guy. He doesn't have kids, so he treats me very close to being a son. The correlation or the relation between Princess Noor and Medina Spirit was a complete and utter coincidence. In fact, Oussama called me about Princess Noor, told me he bred her and she's supposed to be nice, but he told me to be careful. There's that very close relationship in terms of friendship, and he said, 'Don't go crazy.'”
It was Baffert, however, that pushed Zedan, who was in the Middle East during the sale, to go to $1.35 million for Princess Noor when the bidding got well past the $750,000 target price that Zedan had set. “The price is now $1.2 million, and Bob says, 'Get her.' Then we hit $1.3 million, so Bob texts me and says he will make her worth this much. If you have Bob Baffert in your corner and he's saying that, you just do it. So I say, 'Gary, just get her. Don't leave without her.' Boom, boom, we got her, and you know the rest of the story.”
What neither Baffert, Zedan, and Young knew at the time was that they'd get an even better one a month later for a fraction of that price, and that colt has now signaled the arrival of Amr Zedan, whose transparency and accessibility is a refreshing revelation for observers.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.