American Pharoah’s Owner Had Gambling Woes Before the Triple Crown
Ahmed Zayat made history at Belmont. But the family who got him into horse racing ended up stealing his cash in an illegal gambling ring—and he was accused of owing $1.6 million.
As he later told it in a deposition involving a supposed $1.6 million gambling debt, Ahmed Zayat had never seen a horse race until the 1990s, when he attended a birthday party at a trackside restaurant.
“That was the first time ever that I have been to a racetrack,” Zayat testified last year. “I know nothing about horses from the sense of betting, except riding horses as a kid.”
The party was at Meadowlands Pegasus in New Jersey. The guest of honor was Lenny Jelinsky, a financial planner with Shearson Lehman. The other guests prominently included Jelinsky’s two teenage sons, Michael and Jeff.
“I kind of took a liking particularly to Michael,” Zayat recalled of the younger son. “He was a high school star athlete…The kid was a basketball wizard.”
And there was something else.
“The kid had a photographic memory, he told me, and he loved horses,” Zayat said. “And he was talking to me about horses.”
Zayat had become a remarkable success since emigrating from Egypt when he himself was 16. He had attended Yeshiva University and Boston University and Harvard University, then served as top protégé of Wall Street mogul Zev Wolfson, who famously replied “from God!” when asked how he got all his money.
Now entering his early 30s, Zayat was in the process of acquiring Al Ahram Beverages Company (ABC), which operated Egypt’s sole brewery. The elder Jelinsky so admired Zayat’s achievements that he asked him to mentor his two sons.
“Their dad thought I was a good role model,” Zayat recalled.
But Zayat had little time to mentor anybody as he scrambled to manage a particularly challenging business in Egypt while raising a family in New Jersey.
“Trying to pitch beer in a Muslim county,” he recalled. “I didn’t have time to talk to myself.”
He is an observant Orthodox Jew, and he would fly home to Teaneck for Sabbath, then head back to Egypt after sundown Saturday.
“I lived on a plane,” he said.
The business boomed after ABC began producing near beer that religious authorities certified as Halal.
“It tastes like beer and it’s a little naughty,” an ABC marketer proclaimed.
In 2003, Zayat sold the company to Heineken for $280 million, then the biggest financial deal in Egyptian history.
“Everybody had heard about my success,” Zayat recalled in the deposition. “Everybody heard the news.”
Among the people who reached out to him were the Jelinsky brothers, now grown.
“They sent me messages congratulating me and saying, ‘We really miss you. We’d like to see you. We moved to Vegas. We are traveling home to see our parents. We would love to meet back with you,’” Zayat testified.
He was still beyond busy, for part of the deal with Heineken was that he stay on for a period. He told the brothers that he was only home for a few hours at a time before jetting off.
“I said, ‘Perhaps come stop by for breakfast,” he recalled. “I will spend 15 minutes saying hi to you.”
The brothers arrived in the early morning on the appointed day.
“I remember opening the door, and there were these two kids that I hadn’t seen in years,” Zayat testified.
A man he had never seen before was standing next to them.
“I was like, ‘Who is that?’” Zayat recalled. “He had come unannounced. I never met him. I never even know his name.”
The man was Howard Rubinsky, a former X-ray technician turned casino computer operator turned gambling facilitator.
“[The brothers] told me that he is a friend of them, that he is a person who is highly regarded, well connected with some business people that are in the casino business,” Zayat testified. “Howard didn’t say much. It was a social breakfast. It was totally a nonevent. It was seeing somebody for a couple of minutes, my wife giving a very nice breakfast for them. We were hospitable, as we always are.”
Two years later, Zayat completed his commitment to Heineken.
”I am transitioning and leaving ABC and retiring,” he testified. “I start looking at horse races.”
A tingle that Zayat had felt upon first being at a racetrack at the elder Jelinsky’s birthday party now became a passion. And Zayat heard talk that the son Michael had combined his own passion for horse racing with that photographic memory to become one of the biggest bettors around.
“Everybody was talking about how this whiz who is [the] only one winning on the horse races,” Zayat testified.
Zayat began chatting regularly with Michael on the phone.
“We used to call sometimes on a daily basis, talk about the race…‘How do you like the field? How do you like the card?’” Zayat recalled. “It’s two people who love horse racing are just talking about their passion.”
He added, “Let’s say there is racing at Belmont or whatever, I think you like this horse?...Do you like that horse?...Do you like that trainer?”
Zayat now had the time and resources to venture into breeding. He founded Zayat Stables, buying four horses.
“I’m starting to invest in this,” Zayat testified. “And [Michael] is one of the players who knows about different trainers, different horses.”
He summed up his relationship with Michael as, “One is known to be a player, the other has a passion having horses.”
Zayat testified that he only bet through Michael during one brief period. That was when Zayat was on a fortnight’s vacation to California, away from his usual mode of wagering.
“He had an online account, and we were discussing the races,” Zayat recalled. “And I will tell him what I liked, and he was betting it in his account.”
Sometime later, federal agents came to Zayat’s office in Hackensack, New Jersey.
“I remember they were all from Nevada, and it sounded like high-powered guys and a gal,’” he later testified. “They said that ‘Basically, we want to ask you about your relationship with Michael and Jeff Jelinsky.’ When they said that name, it was kind of a bombshell for me.”
Zayat had heard rumors that the brothers were in some kind of trouble, and he had lent them money for legal fees, their father having died from cancer. Zayat had even given Michael financial help to get through a divorce.
But Zayat had not imagined that the rumored trouble might personally concern him. The agents now informed him otherwise.
“They told me, ‘You have been the victim of the Jelinskys,’” he recalled. “I looked at them, ‘What are you talking about?’”
The agents played a recording.
“They put on a tape which was a conversation between the two brothers supposedly trying to scam me,” Zayat said.
The tape proved that in that brief period when Zayat thought he was betting through Michael, the brothers were advising him to back horses that they in fact felt were losers.
“Let’s say that they really like, legitimately they are betting the race themselves, they like one, two, three,” he recalled. “They were on purpose giving me five, six, seven…So I would lose because they are giving me the wrong horses.”
But Zayat had not actually lost, because the brothers never actually placed the bets.
“It went into their own pocket,” Zayat said. “[The agents] made me hear the conversation between the brothers plotting.”
Zayat asked the agents how they had known he had been a good friend to the brothers.
“They said because they have been taping these boys for a year or more,” Zayat recalled.
In 2009, the Jelinsky brothers were arrested. They both subsequently pleaded guilty to operating an illegal gambling operation and were sentenced to 15 months.
“Weirdly enough I got a letter from a federal prison from [Michael] that was kind of—I would describe it as somebody going through confession and remorse,” Zayat recalled.
Zayat had kept buying horses and came to acquire more than 250. He then ran into financial difficulties involving a $38 million debt to a bank. He filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
The allegation of another sort of debt came in March 2014 from Howard Rubinsky, the man who had appeared at Zayat’s door along with the Jelinsky brothers more than a decade before.
Rubinsky alleged that Zayat had been betting through him for years, using a line of credit that the former X-ray technician had been granted by online betting outfits. The supposed arrangement was that Rubinsky would get 40 percent of whatever Zayat lost in exchange for getting him to bet there.
In a civil complaint filed in New Jersey federal court, Rubinsky contended that Zayat owed him $2 million as of the end of 2005 and still owed him $1.65 million. Rubinsky sought to back up his claim by submitting a cashed $25,000 check to him from Zayat as well as text messages that contained promises of more money.
But Zayat stated in one of the texts that he was not repaying a debt, that he was “just helping out, don’t owe a soul anything.” Zayat insisted in his November 11, 2014, deposition that had never bet through Rubinsky, though he could not guarantee that the Jelinsky brothers had not used his name to place wagers.
Zayat testified that he had offered Rubinsky money as a fellow victim. Zayat said Rubinsky had told him a “nebich story.”
“N-E-B-I-C-H,” he explained. “A sad story where he was totally and financially ruined and conned himself by these two boys.”
Two days before the Belmont Stakes, a federal judge tossed out Rubinsky’s suit on the grounds that whatever the debt may or may not have been, it dated back more than the six years set by New Jersey’s statute of limitations.
The next day was Friday, and Zayat camped for the night beside Belmont in an RV. He was thereby able to walk to the track without violating the Sabbath.
Not even the Jelinsky brothers at their most persuasive could have made him doubt which horse was sure to come in first in the big race.
A quarter-century after a birthday party first took him to a racetrack, 52-year-old Ahmed Zayat watched American Pharoah streak across the finish line to win the Triple Crown.