Paynter looks for Hollywood ending

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
11:13
AM ET

Hollywood is the place where dreams or storybook tales can come to life.

That's why it's so fitting that on Nov. 2 a horse named Paynter will run in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, a track within a relatively short driving distance of Tinseltown -- traffic permitting, of course.

The story of Paynter belongs in Hollywood. Even now, when the events of his tumultuous past year and a half have been widely celebrated, they seem more fiction than fact.

Far more absurd is the notion -- about a year removed from an illness that nearly claimed the life of the Zayat Stable colt -- that he could beat the nation's best horses in the year's richest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Then again, it's all taking place in the shadow of Hollywood.

"This could be the biggest fairy-tale story anyone could ever imagine," says 21-year-old Justin Zayat, son of Paynter's owner, Ahmed Zayat, and racing manager for his father's stable.

Go back to late summer of last year, though, and this heartwarming tale seemed certain to be written as a tragedy.

At the time Paynter was making a big name for himself. In just his fifth career start, he finished second by a neck in the Belmont Stakes. Then on July 29, he won the Haskell by nearly four lengths and was poised to fill the leadership void in the 3-year-old ranks caused by the sudden retirement of I'll Have Another.

Soon thereafter, however, Paynter was diagnosed with colic and then laminitis -- two potentially fatal diseases -- as an army of fans used social media like Twitter and Facebook to express their support for him. It seemed a long shot that he would survive, and preposterous that he would ever race again. But before the year ended, he was back at trainer Bob Baffert's barn.

"The fans have been there for him every step through the process," Justin Zayat says. "That's what kept us going during the low days. It's just unbelievable, with the tweets, the messages, the postcards we get. Every one of them counts."

Paynter's comeback started with a win in a June 14 allowance race at Hollywood Park. A runner-up finish in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar followed, but a disturbing last-place finish in the mud in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga prompted concern that too much might have been asked of the 4-year-old colt.

A solid second in the Awesome Again -- Santa Anita's steppingstone prep for the BC Classic -- dispelled those thoughts. Though he was beaten 4¼ lengths by Mucho Macho Man, the runner-up in last year's BC Classic and a top contender in this year's race, Paynter endured a wide trip that enhanced his performance and punched his ticket to the Classic.

"He's doing fantastic. He should move forward off a good effort in the Awesome Again and is poised for a big race," Justin Zayat says. "From Day One in bringing him back, our goal was the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile would have been easier, but Paynter gets better the farther he runs. He's a classic horse. He lost the Belmont Stakes by a neck so a mile and a quarter should be no issue for him. I think he'll relish the mile and a quarter."

While destiny would seem to be aligned with the charismatic Paynter, victory will not come easily for him.

His rivals in the Classic include leading Horse of the Year contender Game On Dude, plus last year's BC Classic winner Fort Larned. Older stars Ron the Greek, the Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and Flat Out plus 3-year-old stars Palace Malice and Will Take Charge add even more quality to the sport's deepest and most talented field of the year.

Were Paynter to beat all of them, after all he has endured, it would produce the kind of moment that would be fondly remembered for years to come.

"If he could win, it would be great, not just for my family, but for the whole sport," Justin Zayat said. "It would be a great story, like when Zenyatta won the Breeders' Cup Classic [in 2009]. I was there at Santa Anita when she did it, and the stands were shaking. It was the craziest feeling I've had in my life, but if Paynter wins the Classic, it has the potential to match that."

Beyond that, it would be a perfect story for the folks in Hollywood.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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