Haskell Invitational (Gr. 1) winner and runner-up in the 2012 Belmont Stakes (Gr. 1) Paynter had a solid work over five furlongs on Del Mar Thoroughbred Race Club's all-weather surface in Del Mar, Calif. on Sunday morning. Posting the morning's second-fastest time, the work confirmed Paynter's readiness to run in the San Diego (Gr. 2), Saturday June 27 ar Del Mar. This marks the colt's return to graded stakes company after taking almost a year off due to illness, recovery and rehabilitation.
Following winning last year's Haskell, Paynter was besieged by potentially fatal medical problems. Starting out with a fever, Paynter spiraled downward having colitis, laminitis and surgery for an abscess on his cecum. After surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, Paynter went to the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center, Elkton, Md.
Exceeding the guarded expectations of his recovery by getting better, Paynter was flown back out to his home base - trainer Bob Baffert's barn at Santa Anita, Arcadia, Calif. Gradually reintroduced to work, Paynter restored to his pre-illness form and he returned to racing by winning a seven-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park in June.
Running in that allowance race we knew Paynter was ready. But I had the question in the back of my mind -- coming back at seven furlongs is a very tricky business. It's between a mile and a sprint, so you need the speed of a sprinter and the stamina of a miler.
Paynter was running against a nice field that had a lot of back class to it. There were horses coming out of stakes races, some nice horses. And our colt was coming off almost a year lay-up. This was all in the back of my mind, all the time. Paynter broke out the gate and was going pretty quickly, another horse was on his neck pressing him all the time. When Paynter turned for home and leveled off, it was beautiful once he did it. It was so easy for him.
Every person was jumping and yelling for Paynter. You could hear the track announcer Vic Stauffer get choked up as the horse crossed the wire. We were walking to the winners' circle, the whole family celebrating, when people were calling 'Paynter, Paynter' and giving us a standing ovation. It was unbelievable.
Given the severity of his medical issues last year, and the strength of his comeback this year, that Paynter is a gritty, tough individual cannot be questioned. Indeed resilience and fortitude are hallmarks of Paynter's family. His dam is Tizso, a full sister to top sire, Horse of the Year, Hall of Fame member, multiple Eclipse Champion and two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Tiznow, who battled physical setbacks. This year's excellent 3-year old colt Oxbow is closely related as well. Awesome Again, Paynter's sire, was a Breeders' Cup winner and has sired four Breeder's Cup winners.
Sometimes, when a horse goes through the illnesses and concurrent stresses that Paynter has, it will give up. According to Zayat, Paynter is back to his former self both physically and mentally:
The thing about Paynter is he is like a little bull. He is very aggressive. He knows he's 'the man.' When he's training, he's pulling his exercise riders. When he's hotwalking, he's pulling the hotwalker. That's just Paynter. He's the alpha male, he knows he's the real deal. On the track you can see how he prances around.
When Paynter got sick, he would relax, he would not do anything. If you go past Paynter's stall right now when he's in training, he'll take a chunk right out of you, nibble with you, just play around. That's him.
When he was sick you could do whatever you want with him. He knew he was sick. Whatever Dr. Laura (Javsicas) wanted, whether she had to put a catheter in his throat or give him a shot, he'd literally suck it up and take it like a man. That's when you could tell he was really sick, because he was not himself.
As he started with Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill Equine Therapy, he was walking more and going out into the paddock, you could see him becoming that aggressive Paynter again. That's when we said 'Oh wow! Maybe, we could bring him back.' Once he started recovering you could see it in his personality. You could see it in his bucking and kicking, that's just Paynter for you.
He went from being an alpha male, aggressive horse, to easy to take care of when he was sick to 'Oh Paynter's back.' On a recent television profile of Paynter, Bob Baffert was talking and Paynter was in the background trying to bite him. That's just who Paynter is.
With Paynter on the comeback trail, Zayat Stables has a lofty goal for Paynter: the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (Gr. 1) at Santa Anita. His team is taking his program day-by-day. If he comes out well from the 1 1/16 mile San Diego Handicap (Gr. 2), his next race could be either the Pacific Stakes (Gr. 1) at Del Mar or the Woodward Stakes (Gr. 1) at Saratoga Race Course, NY; both a 1 ¼ mile test. The Pacific Stakes is a Breeders' Cup Challenge race - a win-and-you're-in the Breeders' Cup Classic, all fees complimentary. As a final prep, Paynter could run in either the 1 1/8 mile Awesome Again Stakes (Gr. 1), Santa Anita, or the 1 1/4 mile Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (Gr. 1), Belmont Park, N.Y. Both are Breeders' Cup Challenge Races for the Classic.
After the Breeders' Cup, Zayat Stables will decide what Paynter's future in 2014 - retire or run. Ever game, Justin Zayat reflects,
That's a long way away. I'd love see him race. Why not? Why not bring him back for another year? It's not out of the question.
As you can imagine every farm in Kentucky has called. We're not doing anything right now, we are waiting it out and seeing where the horse takes us. We are enjoying his racing for now.
Racing fans, horse lovers, everyone who loves a great comeback story are also enjoying the "little bull" of a horse. To echo the message that was used in social media to support Paynter's team through their most difficult days ... Power-up Paynter!