The nervous excitement ahead of Paynter’s miraculous return to the races turned into jubilant euphoria after the horse that was on the verge of death due to bouts with colitis and laminitis at the end of last year returned to dazzle on a Friday afternoon at Hollywood Park.
“It’s an amazing story. He went from 99-to-1 to survive to 1-to-9. I can’t believe we’re standing here in the winner’s circle with him,” trainer Bob Baffert said after the race while choking back tears.
Paynter hadn’t been seen in the starting gate since a clear win in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (Grade 1) at Monmouth Park in New Jersey last July and was sprinting for the first time since his debut at Santa Anita last February.
However, the strapping colt was sharp early and clearly towered in class over his seven third-level allowance rivals while stopping the clock in 1:21.4 over seven furlongs and extending the lead he held every step of the way to 4 1/2-lengths under the wire.
“He’s a really good horse. He worked with Fast Bullet the other day and was cruising with him and there’s no faster horse than him right now going short,” said Baffert regarding Paynter’s forward placement. “I was worried about the synthetic. I didn’t really know how he was going to handle it. He worked ok on it, but then I got him back to Santa Anita and put two good works into him.”
Purchased as a yearling by owner Zayat Stables LLC for $325,000, Paynter now has four wins and a pair of runner-up finishes from seven career starts. The four-year-old son of Awesome Again will almost certainly become racing’s newest millionaire after his next start, with $37,200 in earnings today pushing his career total to $989,424.
“I had a lot of pressure in the beginning, but I knew I had a lot of horse. He won easy,” said jockey Rafael Bejarano, who booted home five winners on the day to re-claim his lead in the standings with 36 wins at the meet, four ahead of Joe Talamo.
Paynter’s battle for survival was well-chronicled on social media by his owners and resulted in a groundswell of support from racing fans across the world who voted him as the people’s horse in winning the Vox Populi Award.
That popularity was reflected at the betting windows, with Paynter being sent off as the odds-on favorite at 2-to-5 and returning $2.80 to win.
“I know seven furlongs coming back is a tough distance and I didn’t think we’d receive that much pace pressure,” said owner Justin Zayat. “Turning for home it kind of reminded me of the Haskell when he just leveled off and took off. I love it.”
All parties were non-committal on the campaign for the remainder of 2013, but the love for what has become America’s horse surely extends to the East Coast, where Paynter also finished as the runner-up in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
His next trip to the starting gate will almost certainly come at either Saratoga or Del Mar this summer with the ultimate goal being the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita in November.
Majestic City ran second as the 7-to-1 third choice, 6 1/4-lengths in front of 8-to-1 fourth choice Fly Lexis Fly, who got his nose down in front of 4-to-1 second choice Kate’s Event.
Marc Doche is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.