Comeback Kid

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Outfitted in special boots and standing on extra-thick rubber mats, the skinny, wrung-out, tired horse eyed the visitors. He’d been through hell – fever, colitis, surgery, laminitis and all the accompanying weight loss – and looked like it.

That was last fall at the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center in Maryland as Grade 1 winner Paynter fought for his life after winning the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park. By the end of the year, he left healthy, lively, weighty, ready for owner Zayat Stable and trainer Bob Baffert. Today, the 4-year-old colt is favored at 2-1 in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga. The $750,000 race lured a field of six classy runners, but just one miracle horse.

“So much has been written and said about him being a miracle horse or whatever you want to call him,” said Bruce Jackson, head of the therapy center. “I don’t know about that, but it’s quite astounding. For him to come back at that level is something. He was very, very sick. It’s a testament to his guts and grit and attitude. He fought it and was trying to pull through the whole time.”

When he came to Jackson, Paynter weighed about 900 pounds and walked gingerly on laminitis-damaged hooves. Though he spent time in the center’s hyperbaric chamber, Paynter’s recovery had as much to do with old-fashioned care – hours of walking and grazing and simply resting. Before Fair Hill, he’d been at veterinary clinics in New York and New Jersey and also at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for surgery and treatment for the abdominal issues and the laminitis.

“We got a horse who was out of danger medically thanks to the care he got, but his body was completely run down and weak,” said Jackson. “We got him out as much as we could, we had the special flooring and the special boots to help his feet and we worried about that every day.”

Three or four people rotated on Paynter duty daily, taking him out to graze on the Fair Hill grass and making sure he got some exercise walking around the barn. He spent more time outside than in, Jackson said, and thrived. By December he was walking under tack.

“At every stage, he got better,” Jackson said. “I remember calling Mr. Zayat and saying ‘this horse wants to do more.’ That was a nice phone call to make.”

And to get. Ahmed Zayat gushes when he talks about Paynter and – like Jackson – pays homage to the horse’s mental makeup. The son of Awesome Again, a $325,000 Keeneland September purchase, was destine for big things early and lived up to it with a Santa Anita maiden win, a fourth behind Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby, a narrow loss to Union Rags in the Belmont and then the Haskell score.

Zayat paid credit to more than the horse’s speed and ability, however.

“He has incredible character and determination,” the owner said. “He’s a very smart horse. He’s very, very tough around the barn. You want to touch him, he will bite you. When he was a patient, he was the most lovable, adorable horse you could be around. He was smart enough to think ‘I better behave. I better tell them I need help.’ “

Since returning to Baffert’s barn late last year, Paynter has worked back into racing shape and won his comeback in allowance company at Hollywood Park in June. He followed up that win with a second to Kettle Corn in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar late last month. The Woodward is next.

“It’s a great celebration of life,” said Zayat, of his horse’s return. “He’s an inspiration, he wanted to fight. Seeing him happy and liking the competition again and doing it with the vigor he does it with, it’s thrilling.”

Today, Paynter looks like he could be dangerous lone speed in the 1 1/8-mile test on the main track – after Whitney winner Cross Traffic did not enter and 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned scratched with an injury. Rafael Bejarano rides from post four.

Paynter’s presence is not lost on the others in what promises to be a tactical battle of accomplished main-track heavyweights. All but Successful Dan are millionaires, and he’s less than $70,000 away. He’s the second choice at 5-2 and exits a second in the Whitney. Trainer Charlie LoPresti expects to see his horse closer to the pace than he was here four weeks ago. Julien Leparoux returns for the ride.

“Everybody was anticipating such a big fast pace up front and Julien just misjudged what they did,” said LoPresti. “He was way back. But that’s Julien’s style. I’m going to try to stress to him that you can’t do that. You can’t just hope that it comes back and make up 15 lengths.”

LoPresti continues to like how Successful Dan has trained. Wise Dan’s half-brother came to Saratoga last year, and would have been a player in the Whitney and Woodward, but left without starting and missed the rest of the year with an injury. This time around, he’ll get two starts at Saratoga with an eye on the Breeders’ Cup this fall. Morton Fink’s 7-year-old gelding has worked three times since the Whitney – a half-mile Aug. 13, 5 furlongs Aug. 20 and then a 3-furlong blowout Wednesday. The trainer missed much of it because of fog and traffic and the clockers weren’t entirely sure but Successful Dan wound up with a time of :37 and, more importantly, the blowout LoPresti wanted.

“I know one thing, he was tough going,” LoPresti said. “(Exercise rider Damien Rock) was swinging off of him. None of us could see him. We knew he was tough from the five-eighths to the half though. I really was only going to do a quarter down the lane, but I said, you know what, ‘let’s go three-eighths down the lane. So we got a little more out of it than I was going to do.”

Third in the Whitney, Mucho Macho Man seeks his first Grade 1 win at 9-2 for trainer Kathy Ritvo and jockey Edgar Prado. The 5-year-old son of Macho Uno lost the 2011 Woodward by a neck, then came back and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Flat Out skipped the Whitney after winning the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont in July for Preston Stable and trainer Bill Mott. Junior Alvarado takes the return call on the 7-year-old, whose Saratoga record includes two seconds and a third in three starts. The son of Flatter has fired back-to-back bullet works at Oklahoma and is the 3-1 third choice.

Mott also entered Ron The Greek. The 6-year-old was fourth in the Whitney and makes his sixth start of 2013. Javier Castellano rides from the inside post at 8-1. On the outside, Alpha adds blinkers after finishing sixth in the Whitney for Godolphin and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The 4-year-old won the Travers here last summer, but carries a six-race losing streak.

“We always talked about it,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “He always kind of looked and last time he ran we actually took blinkers off in the Suburban. He had blinkers when he ran over in Dubai, they put them on and he ran well. We took them off when he came back because we had never run him in them. Joel (Rosario) just said he was looking and wandering a little bit (in the Whitney).

In the absence of Cross Traffic, John Velazquez will ride the son of Bernardini at 12-1.

“We are happy with the post position only because he’s not great in the gate and he won’t have to be in there long,” McLaughlin said. “He might get hung a little wide on the first turn, but we will let Johnny work that out. He is doing great but he’s in tough.”

Additional reporting by Tom Law.