Breeders' Cup Classic hopeful Paynter outruns odds against survival

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But throughout, optimism did not ring. Paynter's owner Ahmed Zayat and his son, Justin, kept an active update on the Internet, but keeping a happy face was not easy.

"Three times, I got the call," Baffert says. "If he didn't get better the next couple of days, he would have to be put down."

Dr. Laura Javsicas took over Paynter's care and Baffert credits her with the ultimate sports save. "She just would not give up," he says.

Neither, apparently, would Paynter, who lost about 200 pounds during the process and had a personality change from Dick Butkus to docile. Eventually, surgery to Paynter's large intestine removed a diseased pouch and his real recovery began. The Zayats were trying to save a horse. Nobody even considered getting him back to his previous racing level.

Then, on June 13, in an allowance race at Hollywood Park, with nobody quite sure what to expect, Paynter won by 41/2 lengths. Race caller Vic Stauffer brought him to the finish line fittingly: "Welcome back, big guy."

It couldn't have happened, but it did.

"This was a miracle," Baffert says. "I would have gone to Vegas and bet my life savings that you aren't going to get this horse back at this level."

Any question about that level, about whether Paynter belongs in the second-richest race in the world come Saturday — the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic that features the best horses in the world — was answered Sept. 28 at Santa Anita.

In a Grade 1, $250,000 feature named after his daddy, Paynter ran second to Mucho Macho Man in the Awesome Again Stakes.

Baffert remains happily baffled.

"I still can't believe he is alive," he says.

Breeders' Cup

Where: Santa Anita Park.

When: Friday at 10:40 a.m.; Saturday at 10:15 a.m.

What: 14 races worth more than $27 million in purses.

Featured events: $2-million Distaff on Friday; $5-million Classic on Saturday.

Tickets: $15 general admission on Friday; $40 general admission on Saturday.

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