Monday, July 30, 2012

Paynter Dominates the Haskell

The Haskell Invitational (GI) has consistently proven to be a top race for the best three-year-olds in the nation, seeing such champions as Lookin at Lucky, Rachel Alexandra, and Big Brown capture the victory in Monmouth Park’s most esteemed race in recent years. With a three-year-old division that has fallen apart with the retirement of both of the Triple Crown race winners, the Haskell served as a launching pad for any sophomore colt to jump up and take the lead in the second half of the season.

Paynter certainly made a case for himself when he dominated the Haskell on Saturday. A colt I have followed since his maiden, Paynter did not break sharply from the third gate in the six-horse field that included two grade one winners and was forced to gallop behind Wood Memorial (GI) winner Gemologist into the first turn. He was visibly rank, throwing his head up in the air, but eventually settled beneath Rafael Bejarano. With a position on the outside, Paynter remained just off the steady pace as Gemologist led the six-horse field down the backstretch.

As the field entered the far turn, Paynter inched up beside Gemologist without any urging from Bejarano, garnering a slight lead as the field neared the quarter pole. Before the far turn ended, Paynter had a one-length lead on the others, appearing home-free as the three-year-olds turned for home. Despite a rally from Nonios, Paynter accelerated, continuing to kick clear as the others struggled to keep up. With ease, Paynter flashed under the wire 3 ¾ lengths ahead in a good final time of 1:48.87 for nine furlongs, giving Bob Baffert his sixth Haskell victory and third consecutive win in the $1,000,000 race.

Paynter first caught my attention when he captured his debut in style in February, coming from off the pace to dominate the small field in a maiden special weight sprint at Santa Anita by 4 ¼ lengths. His head toss in late stretch confused many, but it was revealed that his forelock had become unbraided and flew into his ear, bothering him but not keeping him from easily coasting to victory.

The son of Awesome Again has remained on my radar ever since then, and before he even contested in a stakes race, I declared him a future superstar. Paynter made his stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby (GI), finishing a respectable fourth behind eventual Kentucky Derby (GI) and Preakness Stakes (GI)-winning I’ll Have Another. He then finished a close second behind another colt I have followed since the early stages of his career, Hierro, in The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes (GIII) over an off track at Churchill Downs.

Paytner returned to the winner’s circle at Pimlico on Preakness day, dominating an allowance. This set him up for a race that caught the attention of many: the Belmont Stakes (GI). Setting the pace in the mile and one-half journey, Paytner battled Union Rags – a colt I followed from his second start until the end of his career – in late stretch, only to fall a neck short.

Though Paynter did not receive a trip to the winner’s circle, he received the recognition of many. Several dubbed him and his stablemate, Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister (a colt I have followed since his second start), the best three-year-olds remaining after the retirement of both I’ll Have Another and Union Rags.

With his impressive Haskell victory, Paynter confirmed himself as one of the top three-year-olds in the nation, if not the best still in training. In order to catch up with I’ll Have Another as far as the Eclipse Award is concerned, the Taylor Made Sales graduate will need to capture more grade ones and defeat elders, but this colt is clearly very talented and has a great chance to do so.

It is certainly a stretch to declare him as this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner, especially with several top older horses and Bodemeister waiting in the wings, but if Paynter is bred for any race, it’s the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His sire is Awesome Again, winner of the 1998 Classic and sire of Awesome Gem (third-place finisher in the 2007 Classic), Game on Dude (runner-up in the 2011 Classic and one of the leading contenders for this year’s Classic), and Ghostzapper (winner of the 2004 Classic). Intriguingly, Paynter’s dam, Tizso, is a full sister to the only horse to ever win the Classic twice, Tiznow.

No one knows what Paynter’s future holds, but you can be sure that I readily await what it does. This is certainly one of the top racehorses in the country and with a career that has only see him race six times, Paynter likely has more in store for racing fans.

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