Saturday, June 15, 2013

Paynter: A Miraculous Comeback

An updated version of my December 30, 2012 article, "Paynter: A True Superstar"

Photo by Casey Phillips
Just four Thoroughbreds galloped down the stretch in the fifth race at Santa Anita Park on February 18, 2012. One emerged the clear winner, exuding class as he drew away to score by 4 ¼ lengths. His name was Paynter.

The three-year-old bay colt caught my eye, greatly impressing me. I envisioned a future superstar, a horse that would go on to bigger and better things. Perhaps this horse would not make it to the Kentucky Derby (GI); perhaps he would not even make it to a Triple Crown race. But I knew this horse would become something special. However, I never expected him to become as special as he has.

Paynter did become quite the superstar on the track, with performances that included a game runner-up finish in the Belmont Stakes (GI) and 
a dominant victory in the Haskell Invitational (GI). But it was what he did after those races that made him a true superstar.

Following his victory in the Haskell, Paynter was struck with a fever, which only became a far more serious issue. Much too quickly, his illness became colitis and Paynter was soon also diagnosed with laminitis. Death seemed inevitable.

Paynter spent months fighting the diseases that had attacked him. Under the care of veterinary clinics in the northeastern United States, Paynter struggled to defeat his illnesses. Many days passed on which his connections and growing fan base feared they would lose him forever.

But Paynter fought hard. With the true heart of a champion, Paynter struggled to stay alive, fighting to defeat the hardships that had stricken him. After several months, however, he achieved the impossible. With a team of supporters, including not only his loving owner Ahmed Zayat and the veterinarians that treated him, but also the thousands of fans that prayed for his recovery, Paynter became healthy again.

After spending two and one-half months at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center, the awe-inspiring son of Awesome Again returned to where he belongs: the racetrack. Shortly after being awarded the Vox Populi Award, an honor his devoted fans ensured he would receive, Paynter resumed training in Bob Baffert’s barn in California. He had overcome the impossible, displaying an incomparable fighting spirit to survive what nearly claimed his life.

Baffert gradually prepared Paynter for his return to racing, monitoring how his body was handling the rigors of training. Over several months, the Zayat Stables-owned colt became more fit. His large fan base eagerly awaited his return and on June 14, 2013, more than ten months after he initially became ill, Paynter miraculously returned to the races for the first time since he’d captured the Haskell.

Prior to the race, Paynter made quite the impression, his dark coat glimmering beneath the June sun as he pranced about the paddock, eager to make his return to competition. This was what he was bred for, what he loved to do. And finally, after the toughest battle he could face, he had returned to his true passion.

Making his return to the races in an allowance optional claiming event at Hollywood Park, Paynter encountered seven rivals, including four South American group one winners, a graded stakes winner, and a stakes winner. As soon as Paynter broke from the gate, he determinedly pursued the lead, gaining a clear advantage over the graded stakes-winning Majestic City down the backstretch.

Although Majestic City gained ground on Paynter as the favorite led the field into the far turn, Paynter found more, beginning to draw clear. Turning for home, the dogged bay kicked away, lengthening his advantage on his opponents. As the crowd cheered for the miracle horse before him, Paynter simply did what he loved to do, galloping toward a 4 ½-length triumph. Displaying sheer power and resolve, Paynter brought tears of joy to the eyes of many.

Paynter winning his comeback race
Photo by Casey Phillips

This time last year, Paynter was full of promise. He’d just finished a game second in the grueling final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, and was being prepared for a summer campaign. Despite months spent fighting for his life, Paynter has reached yet another promising moment in his life. He has returned to the brilliance he showed on the track last year and ahead of him is the continuation of the career of a gifted Thoroughbred that is one of the most resolute to ever live.

There was Lazarus. There was the Buffalo Bills against the Houston Oilers in a 1993 playoff game. There was Greg LeMond, Rocky Bleier, Mario Lemieux, Ben Hogan, Tommy John, Da Hoss. And now there’s Paynter, a horse with one of the greatest comeback stories of all-time. 

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