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Owner Zayat back in the Derby, just not with the horse he thought would bring him

LOUISVILLE — There is no holding back where owner Ahmed Zayat is concerned, not with his business ventures and certainly not with his emotions.

As he walked the Churchill Downs backstretch Monday morning, Zayat's enthusiasm for his Kentucky Derby contender Nehro was evident by the regular smile he flashed and good-natured conversations he had with those who came across his path.

Though he hardly needs help getting excited for big races, Zayat's appreciation for being part of the Derby has been heightened by the horror show he endured this time last year.

In 2010, six days from the first Saturday in May, Zayat went from having the likely Kentucky Derby favorite to having to digest the news that makes every owner's stomach drop.

Zayat's multiple graded-stakes winner Eskendereya, who had won last year's Grade I Wood Memorial by 93/4 lengths, was declared out of the Derby because of a career-ending leg injury.

While Zayat had campaigned previous standouts such as Grade I winner Pioneerof the Nile — who finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby — in Eskendereya, the 48-year-old entrepreneur thought he had a horse capable of making a serious run at the Triple Crown.

So as happy as Zayat is to have another shot this year in the upstart Nehro, don't think he has put behind him what might have been.

"To be blunt and honest about it, you never get over it," Zayat said of Eskendereya's injury. "My mind cannot process it. He was so dominant and so good.

"This horse, you never would have thought the mile and a half (of the Belmont Stakes) would even have been an issue. That's a horse where you say 'Oh my god, this is a really good Thoroughbred.' And I don't think I'll ever get over it. It's a once-in-a-life experience."

Looking back on last year, the heartbreak of Eskendereya's injury isn't the only thing Zayat doesn't want to experience again.

He was involved in what he describes as an "ugly" lawsuit with Fifth Third Bank when the institution filed a claim saying Zayat Stables had defaulted on $34 million in loans.

Zayat subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection and was able to reach an agreement with the bank on a repayment plan that would satisfy all the defaulted loans. Though he emerged from the ordeal with his racing stable intact — albeit scaled down — the emotional toll it took on Zayat nearly zapped his passion to remain in racing.

"Yeah I did (think of quitting) when it became a little bit vicious with Fifth Third," Zayat said. "It wasn't very pleasant; it was very hard emotionally. It was very hard for my parents and my kids, opening the paper and reading things ... it was just ugly."

With his business reorganized and his perspective in place, Zayat came into this year thinking a return to the Derby might be realistic — just not with Nehro.

Zayat's leading sophomore was the Bob Baffert-trained Jaycito, winner of the Grade I Norfolk Stakes in October and runner-up in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 12.

While preparing for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9, Jaycito developed a foot bruise that took him off the Derby trail.

Unlike the accomplished Jaycito, Nehro had only a maiden win to his credit in his first three career starts. Though not as brilliant as some of his owner's other prospects, the Steve Asmussen-trained son of Mineshaft earned his way into the first leg of the Triple Crown on guile when he followed his second-place effort in the Grade II Louisiana Derby with another narrow runner-up finish in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16.

"He was one of my top 5, but I'd be lying to say (I thought he could be a Derby horse)," Zayat said of Nehro. "Jaycito was for sure a horse you would think had no issue with a mile and a quarter ... but I believed in this colt from Day One. He carried himself with a lot of class.

"Is he Eskendereya? No. But, with all due respect to all my colleagues and competitors, I don't see any Eskendereya's in this year's field."

In the wake of last year's drama, Zayat has taken a different view of many aspects of the sport these days.

Instead of carrying more than 250 horses as he had in the past, Zayat now has about 155 horses, including 55 in training. He has weekly conference calls with all his trainers, and he says there is not a horse in his care he isn't up to date on.

And unlike last year's Kentucky Derby, Zayat is actually going to try to fully enjoy this one.

"You know he's mellowed out some," Baffert said of Zayat. "I know (last year) was really driving him crazy — nobody wants to read about stuff like that — but he's a tough businessman so he got through that.

"I think he just feels excited that he made it to the Derby because it's so tough to get here and you never know who you're going to get here with."

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