Up until Sunday, Paynter was a horse with potential and nothing more. His biggest win had come in an allowance race at Pimlico, hardly the stuff of stardom.
That all changed in an instant at Monmouth Park, where he crushed five rivals to win the $1 million Haskell by 3 ¾ lengths. What we have now is a Grade 1 winner who is clearly the best healthy horse in his division, albeit a decimated division.
"He came here and showed the world that he is a serious horse," trainer Bob Baffert said after his sixth Haskell win.
What Baffert didn't say is that his horse finally grew up, that on this day he went from a prospect to legitimate star. It just took some time.
Baffert has said that he was always high on Paynter, but he couldn't get him to the races until February of this year. He won that day, but it forced Baffert's hand. With a horse that talented and with the Kentucky Derby less than three months away, he had to play a serious game of catch-up. Baffert went from the 5 ½-furlong maiden win to the Santa Anita Derby and it turned out to be too much to ask, even for a horse this capable. From there, he went into the Derby Trial, followed by the Pimlico allowance, making three starts within a six-week period, something no trainer ever wants to do in this day and age.
The Belmont Stakes was next, where he had to go a mile-and-a-half after having never run further than a mile and an eighth. He ran well to finish second, but wasn't quite ready for the type of fight he had to face from a quality seasoned horse in Union Rags.
The Haskell was the first time in his colt's career that he was in the right place at the right time. He had adequate time in between races, he was at the right distance and Baffert didn't have to rush anything. And look what happened.
He'll go next in the Aug. 25 Travers at Saratoga, where he'll be a solid favorite over Jim Dandy winner Alpha and others. Should he win the Travers, talk will no doubt start to heat up about the possibility of his unseating I'll Have Another for the 3-year-old male championship. He's way behind that rival for now, but wins in the Travers, the Breeders' Cup Classic and maybe something else could make things interesting. That won't be easy for Paytner. But neither will it be impossible. I think the horse is that good.
The Haskell win was a triumph not just for the horse but for the trainer. Baffert's six Haskell wins, all of them coming since 2001, might be his single greatest accomplishment. Plenty of trainers go into the Triple Crown races every year with ammunition, and Baffert is one of them. What separates him is that, unlike others, his horses always seem to live to fight another day, which is why they so often win a huge post-Belmont race like the Haskell.
The Tail of Hansen: Finally, quirky owner Dr. Kendall Hansen has gotten his wish and has found a jurisdiction that will allow him to dye Hansen's tail before a big race. The Louisville Courier Journal has reported that the West Virginia Racing Commission and Mountaineer Park have given the green light to the dye job for the West Virginia Derby. Good for them. Hansen, the doctor, is simply trying to have some harmless fun, which there isn't enough of in racing. Too bad that so many stuffed shirts have stood in his way.
No Lasix in Hambletonian: Those who insist horses have to have Lasix in order to race ought to take a look at this Saturday's Hambletonian, the cleanest race in the land. Lasix is not allowed in either the Hambletonian or the Hambletonian Oaks and the event and the horses do just fine without it. The Hambletonian Society is to be commended for being the one organization in all of racing with the guts to say no to a drug that has done racing a lot more harm than good.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.