The Smell of Victory

IMG_1039Not to condone the breaking of the ninth commandment, but one of the things that can make journalism fun to read is that the people who participate in its creation are not under oath. It’s no surprise that a reporter’s subject may misspeak for any number of reasons: guilt, ego, money, or, in the notable case of Richard Nixon, because his lips moved. Outright lies are scattered throughout every one of these “he said, she said” newspaper stories, hiding in plain sight, often within quotation marks, like the telltale clues in a well-plotted murder mystery. The fun resides in spotting them out.

Sometimes you need a couple of different angles. Especially when the story unfolds over fifteen years and has a cast of characters that includes Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Triple Crown contender (and scourge of spellcheck) American Pharoah; a convicted felon named Howard Rubinsky; two wayward brothers from New Jersey; offshore bookmakers; and agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Zayat declined comment and lawyered up when Joe Drape of the Times was breaking this story last week. Zayat is the defendant in a breach of contract suit brought by Rubinsky, a former recruiter for offshore bookmakers. Rubinsky claims to have fronted for Zayat, advancing him two million dollars in credit that Zayat subsequently lost to the bookmaker, leaving Rubinsky to suffer the actual loss. Zayat was deposed in the case last November and has denied owing Rubinsky anything. At least one of them is lying.

One of the rare facts on which both Zayat and Rubinsky agree is that they were introduced by two brothers, Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky, sometime in the early 2000s. The brothers arranged for Rubinsky to be a surprise guest at a breakfast meeting at Zayat’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Zayat testified that he thought of himself as a mentor to the two enterprising young lads (whom he had known since the early nineties when they were still in high school), and that the meeting was an investment pitch on which he took a pass. Rubinsky claims that this meeting was the genesis of an eventual contractual relationship regarding lines of credit with the offshore bookmakers whom Zayat subsequently stiffed.

Regardless of which side you believe, there is little doubt that fortune has favored Zayat since this foursome sat down to breakfast more than twelve years ago. His Zayat Stables has been one of the leading North American stables since 2007 with horses like Pioneerof The Nile and Nehro and Bodemeister (all Kentucky Derby bridesmaids) and now the Triple Crown aspirant with the misspelled name. Rubinsky has seen financial ruin and pleaded guilty for his role in the operation, leaving him a convicted felon. Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky were convicted of illegal bookmaking in 2009 and sentenced to 15 and 21 months in prison, respectively, along with a combined forfeiture of nearly $5 million.

But while Ahmed Zayat has seemingly flourished, he is apparently the talk of the offshore betting set for having left bad markers in and around the Caribbean. Three days after Drape’s bombshell dropped on, Ken Kurson reported in the Observer (he is its editor) that two men presumed to have a working knowledge of the publicity-shy offshore betting industry contend that Zayat “still owes quite a few sports books quite a bit of money”  and has “a lot of debts”. While you may be skeptical about someone who loves being called “The Gambling Globetrotter” (and who, despite all that globetrotting, still finds the time to publish a website dedicated to cataloging Zayat’s less-favorable press), the fact that there are others who support Rubinsky’s assertions suggests there may well be some pale fire here and not just smoke.

It seems Kurson did a great job of getting under Zayat’s skin, because rather than say “no comment” and refer to counsel, the defendant opened up his yap and proceeded to protest just a bit too much. Maybe it was Kurson’s sources with inside information about the offshore books. Maybe it was the odd bit that Kurson related firsthand from his previous stint in politics, where Zayat apparently did not vet out sufficiently to be cleared for hosting a 2007 fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. Whatever the reason, Zayat did himself no favors with this interview.

Kurson quotes Zayat as saying “He’s talking about me betting overseas in Costa Rica. I’ve never in my life been in Costa Rica.” Whom is Zayat trying to fool with such inanity? Even a piker of a punter such as your correspondent knows the advantage to having an offshore account is that it allows you to bet beyond the reach of the US government while keeping yourself safely onshore.

Zayat told Kurson “He’s talking 2003. I was in Egypt, as CEO of a beverages company. I was working 18 hours a day. It’s an insanity.” Back then Zayat was spending roughly three workweeks out of every month in Egypt. But he was also spending weekends and down time with his family at his home in Teaneck, which is where he acknowledges meeting with the Jelinskys, who were by then based in Las Vegas and becoming well acquainted with high-stakes offshore bookmakers.

Zayat’s testimony suggests that the Jelinsky brothers reconnected with him after reading a glowing article about his business triumphs in Egypt in the Christmas Day 1999 edition of the New York Times. [Zayat was born in Egypt and came to the US as a teenager. After college he worked in New York real estate and on Wall Street before making his fortune in 1997 by arranging the purchase of a monopoly beer and beverage company from the Egyptian government and then taking it public. The company was subsequently sold in 2002 to Heineken for $280 million – roughly four times greater than what Zayat’s group paid for it.]

In 2013 Zayat suffered the embarrassment of having an untruth detected in his official biography. Even after all of his success in business, and despite actual degrees from Yeshiva and Boston University, Zayat continued to list a nonexistent MBA from Harvard on his CV. It was only when the Record of New Jersey raised the fact that Harvard had no record of his ever having attended that Zayat had the bogus degree scrubbed from his stable’s website. But old habits are hard to quit. About 18 months after the Record revealed his ivy-covered untruth, Zayat found himself in an east side law office, under oath, being deposed by Rubinsky’s lawyer.

Q: Where did you attend (college)?

A: Yeshiva University, Harvard University and Boston University.

If Zayat cannot bring himself to be truthful about his classroom achievements while under oath, how can you believe anything he might say to a newspaper reporter about millions of dollars in illegal offshore betting?

In his sworn deposition, Zayat stated that he handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Jelinskys and smaller amounts to Rubinsky, but he represents these as loans and acts of charity to beleaguered individuals, and not the partial settling of gambling debts with three soon-to-be convicted felons.

The $600,000 in purported loans to the Jelinsky brothers caused a stir when they became part of the public record after Zayat Stables went through bankruptcy proceedings in early 2010. This came roughly a year after the Jelinskys pleaded guilty to illegal bookmaking and would seem to put Zayat in the unenviable position (for a big-time thoroughbred owner) of having associated with known bookmakers. But Zayat seemed to have dodged this bullet back then, owing to his long personal history with the brothers, and his insistence that these were mitzvahs, and not payoffs on gambling debts. But one line in Joe Drape’s February 20, 2010 story about this episode clearly shows that Zayat is all too willing to dispense with the truth whenever it suits his purpose.

Zayat told Drape in 2010 that he had never been contacted by law enforcement authorities about the Jelinskys’ illegal activity (presumably because that would have indicated that he had been knowingly dealing with bookmakers). But in his deposition from last November, Zayat not only testified that he had been visited by agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in May of 2008, but that he had placed bets with Michael Jelinsky during the time period when Jelinsky confessed to having been illegally booking bets.

Should American Pharoah go on to win the Belmont Stakes and you happen to hear a mighty rumbling when Ahmed Zayat raises the Triple Crown trophy above his head, don’t worry: it’s probably just the sound of Jule Fink (the most unfairly maligned owner in racing history) turning over in his grave.

We close this inquiry into untruths and their seeming lack of consequences with this: The Observer reported that Zayat cited the timing of Rubinsky’s suit as a way of capitalizing on the sudden fame of American Pharoah and Zayat Stables. Rubinsky filed his suit in March of 2014; five months before the start of American Pharoah’s racing career. If Rubinsky had American Pharoah in mind when he brought this suit, it would represent the greatest futures bet in the history of throughbred racing.

Betting by Mail

IMG_1080My Preakness bet arrived in the mail just the other day.

To be precise, this particular “bet” is more like a Derby & Preakness parlay, since I made it before American Pharoah won a garland of roses, a trip to Baltimore and two weeks off by winning the Kentucky Derby (no, Firing Line did not win two trips to Baltimore by coming in second).

I didn’t think of it as a bet until after reading this post by my friend Richie, who pointed out that perhaps the only way to get 4-1 odds on American Pharoah winning the Preakness (short of betting a winning cold exacta or an awfully chilly trifecta) was to buy seats to the Belmont Stakes and then scalp them find someone willing to pay the free market rate for them on Stub Hub after another victory by the Pharoah.

It is quite possible and even likely that if American Pharoah wins the Preakness, this little ducat could be worth $550 to some sucker champion of the free market, but that’s not really the reason why we went with the USPS as our runner.


After having attended sixteen out of seventeen runnings of the Belmont between 1989 and 2005 (missing only Julie Krone’s triumph aboard Colonial Affair in 1993), one day this pilgrim’s devotion wavered. The prospect of a warm and crowded Big Sandy started losing ground to the charms of a late spring day in Columbia County. Sometimes (2006, 2010), it was because the big race was just not that compelling. Sometimes – ironically enough, after all those years of hoping to see a Triple Crown winner – it was out of concern that the wrong “horse” (read: trainer) might finally end the drought (2008, 2012).

But in May of 2013, Orb failed to win at odds-on in Baltimore and the lure of distressed market rate tickets on Stub Hub proved impossible to resist. It turned out to be a splendid day, and it was great to be back in Elmont on the biggest day of the downstate racing calendar. When the New York Racing Association gilded a perfectly nice lily by adding the Met Mile to an already stakes-loaded card last year, the thought of taking a pass on Belmont Day went out the window, perhaps never to return.

These last two years have added a new question to be asked during the buildup to the Derby. How likely is it that the winner of the Derby might also win the Preakness? Without a standout favorite, there would be a strong likelihood that two different horses winning the first two legs of the crown would once again knock the legs out from under the secondary market. But even though we only used California Chrome and American Pharoah defensively in our Derby bets, their pre-Derby reputations suggested that a Derby win would result in a near-walkover of a Preakness and make it a seller’s market for Belmont seats.

So the risk/reward scenarios that danced before us were not so much the idea that Belmont seats might quintuple in value, but whether we would be able to wait a while and then get them on the cheap. The ducat is not for sale regardless of where American Pharoah finishes later today. The question is whether or not paying retail four weeks ago was the right move, and the Derby winner will provide that answer presently.

The Twice a Month Plan

By sneaking in under the wire on Sunday afternoon with a regrettable 1,600 word piece on Derby Day in Columbia County, the first year of Around2Turns came to a crashing and inglorious end. It was our 24th blog post and came 364 days after making our maiden voyage with this more buoyant number on the announcement of Tom Durkin’s pending retirement. What can I say? Even at a rate of two-per-month they can’t all be gems.

I make this post not to offer self-congratulation for such uneven and ill-scheduled contributions to the state of online horsetalk, but rather, to thank my small but cherce collection of readers for clicking through to here from someplace better, and hanging around for as long as they could possibly stand it. Like Christopher Kay of the New York Racing Association, we here at Around2Turns pledge that – here in Year 2 – we will do our utmost to make your guest experience as free from drudgery and squalor as can reasonably be expected.

Towards that goal, let’s take a brief look at the things that seemed to be OK last year, and how we might manage to do more of those (and fewer of those other ones) from hereon.

“The Drama King” piece on Durkin was that rare bird among the two dozen, as it was posted while a breaking story was still fairly fresh, making it a timely piece. Since I continue to be gainfully employed on the business side of that place where Red Smith toiled following his Women’s Wear Daily days, these sort of “newsy” bits will often be subject to the vagaries of my off (writing) hours. And if a fresh take or unique angle can’t be provided? Then, dear reader, what’s the point? You might just as well re-read the story you already saw in the pages of what Smith used to refer to as “Pravda“.

A story that came as a complete surprise, even to me, was the piece about Daniel Colman (“A Gambler’s Problem” – thanks to Justin Finch who figured this sordid affair was in my wheelhouse and tipped me to it). It would be great to be able to come up with more like that one, but there are only so many Daniel Colmans in the world, so we will just hope to get lucky and go from there.

Some of the more personal things (“The Final Hurdle” and “Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar”) were OK, but we would really prefer to do less of this sort of thing (too many I’s and me’s and we’s), even if this is technically a blog. And speaking of it being a blog, until I can get to a twice a week schedule instead of twice a month, it’s probably better to think of Around2Turns as a website where I occasionally post things.

The best thing to show up here was the “Trust and Consequences” piece on the Steve Asmussen and PETA affair (you can scroll down to find that one). While this one was certainly au courant, what really helped was having a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission report to dig into and present in a way that you were unlikely to see elsewhere. This piece getting a Twitter shout out from Steve Byk – along with really nice comments from my friends on the Thoro-Graph board – was the highlight of my year.

And that is really why I wanted to write this post. When I first hit “publish” one year ago, my personal morning line said Around2Turns was no better than even money to last the year. But getting encouragement from a bunch of smart people who I have an awful lot of respect for has helped to make this folly feel like something more, and makes me want to do better. So thank you to all the people who click over from Thoro-Graph or the Ragozin board or from PaceAdvantage or Twitter or wherever you may find me. Special thanks to good friend Jerry Brown, who has always been encouraging and allows me to hang out my shingle on his rollicking message board. And one more special thank you to Justin Finch and Marc Attenberg of TimeFormUS, who have been quite early and explicit in their encouragement. Thank you all, and here’s to hoping that the next few photos go your way.

Derby Day 141, Columbia County

IMG_0982 Another first Saturday in May has come and gone, taking another Kentucky Derby and American Pharoah’s cloak of invincibility along with it. Maybe in another four weeks the Derby winner will have caught back up with his hype and made history by becoming the 12th winner of the American Triple Crown. Maybe not. Either way, the long stretch drive at Churchill Downs last Saturday showed that while American Pharoah is indeed a game and talented horse, for now he remains just that: a horse. It figures to take a bit more than what he showed in reeling in Dortmand and Firing Line for him to reclaim the mantle of equine legend in the making.

But before we get to skipping right over the Preakness (kind of like Todd Pletcher, who has had one Preakness starter since Super Saver in 2010), let’s take one more look at the 141st Kentucky Derby.

The favorite won again, making them five for their last nine, and seven for their last sixteen, following the 20-year drought of the eighties and nineties. Only Carpe failing to seize the Diem prevented the first five betting choices from filling out the Super Hi-Five, making this perhaps the chalkiest Derby in recent memory. Despite being billed as the deepest and most talented Derby field in years, it played out like a boat race, with the horses running 3-2-1 all the way around the racetrack finishing up 1-2-3 (word is even Floyd Mayweather found it boring). Yes the hyped-up super horse prevailed, but only after Victor Espinoza thumped out 8 bars in 4/4 time on American Pharoah’s flanks, getting the two of them through a contentious final quarter in 26 seconds plus and putting to bed, for now anyway, the Seattle Slew comparisons. All that for a $7.80 win mutuel and a $202 trifecta (100-1 odds for a bet that had nearly 5,000 possible outcomes).

Afterwards it was said that some people felt deflated by the result, but you’d never know it by some of these photographs (swiped from eOnline). Everyone seemed happy enough (at least for the time being).

But for horseplayers who were subjected to watching the Derby telecast on NBC – a network that tends to treat its other championship events with a touch more respect  – it’s a reminder as to where racing and the Derby stack up within that great American subconscious.

Sure it’s a great horse race with wonderful Kentucky traditions that resonate across the country: huge betting pools; mint juleps; the fleecing of outsiders; a lightly edited Stephen Foster song; plus a collective and bizarre obsession with hats that lately seems to have hurdled what remains of the gender divide (yeah, I’m talking to you, Gronkowski!). The TV ratings tell us that the only two horse races that Americans care about are the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes (and that number falls to one in years when the Derby winner fails to repeat in the Preakness). And to judge by the Derby broadcast, NBC isn’t all that sure how Americans feel about the horse racing part of the horse race, hence the hedging with the celebrity and headwear coverage.

It’s a sad state of affairs. From the 2-year-old races the previous summer at Saratoga and Del Mar, up until the time when they finish compiling their alibis for why their horse lost, horseplayers are obsessed with the Derby. But for most Americans, if they think about the Derby at all, the day represents a chance to throw a party, to start drinking bourbon in mid-afternoon, and to watch a show about hats that concludes with a horse race. It’s a rite of spring, with horseplayers focused solely on the rite, and the balance of the audience lavishing in their annual spring revelry. Easter hats without having to go to church. Even if the commonwealth of Kentucky only threw a big-money horseshoes tournament, the first Saturday in May would still tend to be a pretty great day across most of America the Beautiful (with some carve-outs for the odd tornado here and there).

And so it was here in Columbia County, near the eastern bank of the Hudson, just downriver from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Around here we don’t refer to it as “God’s Country”, but not because it isn’t pleasant. It is. More so because we are humble city folk with second homes who would find it presumptuous to handicap where God might choose to spend his weekends. Besides, what if he were to want it back someday?

[And if you think I’m kidding about how nice it is here – about 75 miles south of Saratoga – the picture at the top of this post was taken on the morning of Derby Day 141 from our town dump (see below). OK, technically it is a “transfer station”, but since this is where we dump our garbage and recyclables, we fondly refer to it as “the dump”.]

IMG_0982While it was a wonderful day in the Hudson Valley and across much of the country, it turned out to be a pretty lousy day for the three Derby horses who were foaled in New York. We are too lazy to do the research but are willing to bet that these three broke the record for most New York-breds entered in a single Derby. A couple of them were even thought by some folks to have a decent chance at winning if the favorite didn’t turn out to be all that. But International Star was a late scratch due to a foot problem, and the Upstart that ran in the Derby was not the same Upstart who had run a bunch of fast races at Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park. Upstart never really got into the race, was eased and finished last, while the 52-1 Tencendur finished next to last. Excelsior!

The two horses that captured our imagination were the horse we bet on, Frosted (we have a soft spot for pretty grays capable of running negative Thoro-Graph speed figures at double-digit odds), and our sentimental choice (who, at 4-1, we might have bet with your money), the hulking, sad-eyed Dortmund.


Dortmund’s sire, the 2008 Derby and Preakness champ Big Brown, had recently moved into the neighborhood, so it seemed like a good idea to stop by for a visit and to wish him good luck on the occasion of his son’s big day. And anyway, it was too beautiful a Derby Day to spend the entire afternoon inside betting races on a computer.

The drive from the southwest corner of Columbia County to Pine Plains in Dutchess County takes you along beautiful winding roads which partly trace the fall of the Roeliff Jansen Kill on its way to meet the Hudson in Linlithgo. After navigating the one stoplight that constitutes downtown Pine Plains, a few graceful turns and an uphill road take you to Dutchess Views Farm, home to the 2008 Horse of the Year, Big Brown.

480_WSJ_Article_1_ The last time New York stood a horse with the accomplishments of Big Brown was back when Spectacular Bid was exiled to Milfer Farm in Unadilla, after his big-time stallion career turned out to be the polar opposite of his towering career on the race track. But Big Brown is only ten years old, not yet a failure nor a success in his second act, and his arrival in Pine Plains has shaken things up at the otherwise tranquil-seeming Dutchess Views Farm. Anya Sheckley, who with her partner Michael Lischin run the place, seemed to wonder how much busier things could possibly get at the farm if Dortmund were to win the Derby. With a book of 140 mares, Big Brown has already had a huge impact on business, which is why a supply of carrots is always across from his stall; to compensate the big fellow for putting up with slack-jawed admirers like me, spoiling his increasingly rare quiet moments.

On taking my leave Anya and I briefly discussed the race, agreeing that Dortmund had a good shot, but that the field was very tough, and the favorite was indeed formidable. “Starting from the outside might be good for him”, she said, speaking prophetically of American Pharoah.

Driving back west alongside the Roeliff Jansen Kill, I thought back to Big Brown crushing the Florida Derby from the impossible 12 post going 9 furlongs at Gulfstream, and then dominating a 20-horse Derby from the outside stall. Starting from the outside was good for him too, but it takes a hell of a lot of talent to win a race from the parking lot.

But all the talent in the world may not enough be to overcome unreasonable expectations. And what is the Triple Crown, if not a series of unreasonable expectations. It’s unfair, as Steve Coburn found out last year with his California Chrome. Maybe one of these days the stars and circumstances will align, and a great and lucky horse will win the Triple Crown. But it’s not the way to bet.

As horseplayers we know that if American Pharoah manages to win in Baltimore, the hype that started in the early morning at Clocker’s Corner at Santa Anita and reached a fever pitch in the Arkansas Derby afternoon before fizzling somewhat in the Churchill stretch, will reach a crescendo on the big stage at Elmont, creating a great betting opportunity. Until then, many horseplayers will hunker down with Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin and their horses and lie in wait. They will quietly root for American Pharoah to win the Preakness so that they can bet against him in the Belmont. When our non-racing friends ask about American Pharoah’s chances to win the Triple Crown we will urge caution, and tell them why it is so hard to complete the cycle. And if they persist? He’s supposed to be a super horse, isn’t he? Well, at least we tried. You can’t fight the hype except through the betting windows. “Send it in,” we would ruefully suggest, telling them with a sigh what they clearly would like to believe. “He can’t lose.”