5:15 PM EDT, October 29, 2013
Most thoroughbreds leave their barns to go to the races. Paynter got off his deathbed.
Were he to somehow win Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita — a longshot outcome — it would be a story that deserved all the adjectives that would be thrown at it.
"I still can't believe he's alive," says trainer Bob Baffert. "When he went to the hospital, I told my wife [Jill] that this is a one-way trip."
In the Triple Crown season of 2012, in Baffert's talent-laden barn, Paynter was a tough, rugged, somewhat ornery top talent.
"If he was a person," Baffert says, "he would have been Dick Butkus."
He wasn't quite ready for the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He had finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby and was lost in the buzz over race-winner I'll Have Another's promise, which was realized with victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
On Preakness Day at Pimlico, Mike Smith rode Paynter wire to wire in an undercard allowance race that he won by nearly six lengths. Later, Baffert's Bodemeister, also ridden by Smith, was being beaten to the wire for the second straight Triple Crown race by I'll Have Another. Baffert joked he was two-thirds of the way to a runner-up Triple Crown.
By the time of the Belmont, Bodemeister had run out of steam and Baffert decided Paynter was ready. I'll Have Another had scratched out in an 11th-hour stunner when trainer Doug O'Neill discovered an injury.
Suddenly it was Paynter's time, and when Smith had him on the lead closing on the wire, it looked as if Baffert would go from bridesmaid to cutting the cake.
With a horse charging to his right, Smith lugged out just a bit, but that opened the rail and Union Rags squeezed past for the victory. Paynter finished second, Baffert and Smith had won the runner-up Triple Crown that neither wanted and Smith, a wily veteran, was taking heat for allowing the rail to open.
As it turns out, the explanation was more complicated.
"He got hit at the five-eighths pole," Baffert says about Paynter. "Later, we found out he had a splint bone fracture."
So when Union Rags charged by on the inside, Smith might have not been able to get him to close down to the rail anyway.
"He really kind of veered out," Smith says now, while not attempting to deflect any blame. "It was like, oh, no, I don't want to get hit there again."
A splint bone fracture heals on its own. It's normally not serious, and so Paynter was off to bigger things, such as the $1-million Haskell at Monmouth Park. That was July 29, 2012. Paynter won by nearly four lengths. The future couldn't have been rosier.
But Paynter would not race again for 11 months.
"It started with a fever a few days after the Haskell," Baffert says. "Then he got dehydrated."
He was shipped to Belmont Park, then to Saratoga. The hope was he would recover for that prestigious late summer meeting.
"On the night Game On Dude lost the Pacific Classic" at Del Mar, Baffert says, "I got a call and they said Paynter had colitis."
The survival rate of horses with colitis is around 10%. Paynter's illness odyssey had begun. He eventually was fitted for boots because of the onset of laminitis (inflammation of tissue connecting the hoof), also frequently fatal, and ended up at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., outside Philadelphia. New Bolton had received high marks and national recognition for its attempts to keep Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro alive.
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.
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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