Paynter defied the odds when he survived a life threatening illness and came back on Friday at Hollywood Park to win his first race since last summer (Photos courtesy Benoit & Associates).
There may be slightly more than six months left in another year of Thoroughbred racing, but it’s hard to imagine seeing a more joyous and heartwarming moment in 2013 than what took place on Friday afternoon at Betfair Hollywood Park.
It was, according to the condition book, just an ordinary $62,000 allowance race. Yet this one had a special quality to it that evoked an overwhelming amount of emotion from one coast to the other.
That Zayat Stables’ Paynter was a 4 ½-length winner of Friday’s race was not shocking. He was, after all, a 2-5 favorite against modest competition. What mattered more was that he was actually able to return to the racetrack and do what he does best: run breathtakingly fast.
“He is just an incredible, phenomenal horse,’’ said trainer Bob Baffert. “I can’t believe he is back. He’s just a great horse.’’
Less than a year ago, in the fall of 2012, thoughts of a day like Friday were a cruel joke.
Shortly after winning the Haskell, Paynter became ill and took a dangerous turn for the worst. He came down with colitis, then laminitis, yet never once did he lose his thirst for life.
The same heart that carried him to victory in the Haskell and a game runner-up finish in the Belmont Stakes never failed him during a life and death struggle with an illness that all too often exacts the highest toll on its victims. Laminitis claimed the life of Secretariat and ended Barbaro’s gallant fight for life. Yet the indomitable will of a horse to survive and the tireless and painstaking efforts of the Zayat family, Baffert, Dr. Laura Javsicas and the other attending veterinarians and everyone else involved in the care of the colt not only nursed Paynter through his illness, but brought him back to the track and the winner’s circle.
“He is so courageous,’’ owner Ahmed Zayat said on Friday. “He’s a true trooper, a special horse. He loves to do what he does, which is what he did today. What else can you say? Thank you, thank you, Lord.’’
It was in the weeks after his July 29 victory in the $1 million Haskell that Paynter was diagnosed with colitis, an inflammation of the colon, while being treated by Dr. Javsicas at the Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville, N.Y
Then, in early September, Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin, a New York University student and the racing manager for his father’s interests, detailed through Twitter the sad news that Paynter had developed “rapidly progressing” laminitis in three of his four legs. The prognosis was as grim as death itself.
“Dr. Laura (Javsicas) have found out that he has developed it in three of his four legs, which is heartbreaking. Poor Paynter. I don’t know how long he can fight this out so bravely without pain and suffering,” Ahmed Zayat said through a series of tweets. “So far, Laura is very conscious of that and having his pain under control. But we need to look at all these problems. My deep concern is that if he is a healthy horse he can fight laminitis since it is the beginning but to be a sick horse and fight all these issues all at once, it is asking for too much. We need to be compassionate and merciful and treat our star with the respect and love that he deserves while giving him the best chance in fighting for his life. Please pray.”
Those prayers were answered in the ensuing weeks as Paynter’s condition slowly improved. Fueled by Zayat’s frequent social media updates on his horse’s condition, Paynter had a legion of loyal supporters in the digital universe who closely monitored his progress through the popular hashtag #PowerUpPaynter and celebrated each minor victory in a difficult, uphill climb.
By October Paynter had fought off laminitis well enough that he was shipped to the New Bolton Center for surgery on an abscessed cecum that added even more momentum to his amazing recovery.
He was shipped to the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center in Elkton, Md., after surgery and made steady enough progress that by late December he was back at Baffert’s barn.
THE WINNER'S CIRCLE WAS FULL OF EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS AFTER PAYNTER'S VICTORY
Along the way, racing fans became so enthralled and delighted with Paynter’s recovery that his fight was voted the 2012 National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) Moment of the Year and the Secretariat Vox Populi, or “Voice of the People,” Award.
Friday’s race completed the circle and brought Paynter back to the races, where he ran as brilliantly as ever, covering seven furlongs in 1:21.86.
Time will tell what fate has in store for Paynter. Perhaps he may add another Grade 1 victory to his accomplishments before the year ends. Yet whatever happens, that non-descript allowance race at Hollywood Park will always have a special meaning. It was the time when the questions about his physical condition and competitive will were answered. We learned that after all he endured in the past 11 months, Paynter was as healthy as ever and still capable of running far faster than the average race horse.
Yes, Paynter is indeed back, and for that alone, the sport should be quite thankful.