The foal was barely a month old, and Wayne Sweezey had no time to waste.
The symptoms of colic were unmistakable in the dark bay colt. So Sweezey, then the farm manager and managing partner of Darby Dan Farm, and his team did what good horsemen do: They loaded the ailing foal into their car, took him to the clinic and made sure he got all the care he needed.
"It happened after turn-out one morning, we found him out there and he was definitely not feeling good so we took him in," Sweezey, who now owns and operates Timber Town Stables, recalled of that day in 2006. "We knew he had colic. We didn't realize ... he was going to have to have surgery until we got him in there. His gut was twisted. But they got him sorted out, put back together and I don't think he's ever looked back.
"He was a very lucky horse."
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Owner Ahmed Zayat says he always tells his son, Justin, that in the business of Thoroughbred racing and breeding, "you need to be lucky more than smart. And always somebody has to be watching out for you."
Such a life lesson helped keep the Zayat family from losing their first-ever homebred nine years ago. By extension, it brought them to the pinnacle of North American racing on May 2.
In addition to being the first horse bred by Zayat Stables, Pioneerof the Nile became the first to tease of glory when he carried their colors to second place in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, becoming the first of three Zayat runners to take place money in the sport's most famous race.
The distinctions continued for the WinStar Farm stallion last weekend when his champion son American Pharoah ended the Zayats' streak of futility in the Kentucky Derby, winning the first leg of the Triple Crown by a length to become his sire's first North American classic winner.
Finally tasting Kentucky Derby spoils after a trio of near misses — Pioneerof the Nile in 2009, Nehro in 2011 and Bodemeister in 2012 — brought an outpouring of Zayat passion at Churchill Downs last Saturday. That American Pharoah is a homebred product of one of the family's initial life-altering horses has added to the sentiment.
"How spoiled and lucky can you get?" Ahmed Zayat said. "Here's the first horse I've ever bred, that becomes a Grade I winner, and American Pharoah is from his (second) crop ... it's Zayat blood from A to Z.
"It's kind of fun and exciting because it's a legacy. Pioneerof the Nile is a hell of a stallion. And this makes it very pleasing."
Unlike his champion son, Pioneerof the Nile was not flashy in his on-track exploits, often doing just enough to hit the wire first.
From his life-threatening bout with colic when he was a month old to his workmanlike rise in the breeding industry, the 9-year-old stallion has quietly soldiered forward to become an across-the-board success.
A second chance
One of the first major purchases Ahmed Zayat made at public auction was a bay colt named Forefathers that he landed for $680,000 at the 2005 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale. The son of Gone West never did live up to his promise on the track, winning just three of 20 career starts, but Zayat loved his potential enough to buy into more of the family, purchasing Forefather's dam, Star of Goshen, privately while she was carrying an Empire Maker colt she would eventually deliver on May 5, 2006.
The bout with colic Pioneerof the Nile suffered while a month old luckily didn't haunt him beyond the length of his recovery. However, Zayat faced the threat of losing his colt again as he had him entered in the 2007 Keeneland September Yearling Sale only to buy him back for $290,000.
"When you are new in the business, people try to tell you, you have to be prudent, you have to sell the good ones, you have to run it as a commercial operation," said Zayat, who retains an undisclosed percentage of ownership in Pioneerof the Nile. "But I am in it for the passion and we love breeding to race. Most of our horses are bred to race, and when I saw (Pioneerof the Nile) in the back sales ring, I said, 'This is the kind of horse we try to buy. Why are we selling?'"
Five starts into his racing career, Pioneerof the Nile rewarded Zayat's second thoughts in the auction arena when he won the 2008 Grade I CashCall Futurity for trainer Bob Baffert. He went on to sweep the Grade II Robert B. Lewis, Grade II San Felipe and Grade I Santa Anita Derby as a 3-year-old and appeared primed for heroics coming off the final turn in the mud-soaked 2009 Kentucky Derby before 50-1 shot Mine That Bird flew along the rail to pull off a win that left Zayat, and most onlookers, gobsmacked.
An injury after his 11th-place finish in the Preakness Stakes sent Pioneerof the Nile into retirement at Vinery to begin his stud career in 2010 for a fee of $20,000. When he was relocated to his current home of WinStar Farm for the 2013 season, Pioneerof the Nile commanded a modest $15,000 fee.
The hallmark of any significant stallion is its ability to move up lesser-quality mares. And from Pioneerof the Nile's first crop, graded stakes winners like Cairo Prince, Jojo Warrior, Vinceremos and Midnight Storm emerged, followed in short order by increased marketplace respect.
"It's amazing what he's done. Any time you get a horse who stands for $15,000-$20,000, it's a testament to the stallion to come up with horses like he has," said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm. "In his first five years, he bred three Grade I winners and four dams of Grade I winners. This year alone he is breeding nine Grade I winners and 13 dams of Grade I winners.
"He's following the same footsteps of (WinStar stallion) Distorted Humor and (leading Gainesway sire) Tapit and those horses who start out with a medium-priced stud fee and then just continue to improve."
Last season, American Pharoah became the first Grade I winner sired by Pioneerof the Nile when he took the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner Stakes en route to being named 2014 champion 2-year-old male. The stallion's stud fee was raised accordingly, from $20,000 in 2014 to $60,000 for 2015, and he currently stands as the leading third-crop sire and No. 5 on the general North American sire list through Saturday.
It remains to be seen if any challenger can top American Pharoah's talents in the Preakness Stakes on May 16.
What is a wonderfully scary thought to his connections is that, with a better book of mares ahead, Pioneerof the Nile may be only scratching the surface.
"There is something about this guy, we are so excited," Zayat said. "His first book was nothing ... and he still threw all these stakes winners. He was so underrated as a racehorse. He was not flashy ... but he just kept getting it done."