Paynter back on track

He shook free of pneumonia only to land in the grip of something worse, endotoxemia. Toxins in his blood were attacking him. Acute fever and diarrhea squeezed him dry. And when the fever finally broke, an even more efficient killer came after him, laminitis.

Some advised Paynter's owner, Ahmed Zayat, to end it, which might have been expedient, given the insurance, and justifiable, given the horse's condition. But Paynter argued otherwise, eloquently and strongly, every hour of every day, with an infrangible will to live. And, too, he had his "angel," as Zayat described her, at his side, Laura H. Javsicas, VMD, DACVIM.

I had more than one adviser tell me the compassionate thing would be to let him go. But he did not want to go. He was not ready to go.

-- Owner Ahmed Zayat

Ten months ago, Paynter balked at death's threshold. Friday, last year's Haskell winner is to return to competition, in an otherwise inconspicuous allowance event, the seventh race of the day at Hollywood Park. Whether his comeback meets with victory or defeat won't matter so much as his presence, his being there, on the track for a race, with that long spoor of illness and precariousness and rehabilitation behind him, for his return objectifies determination, reifies courage. Or, as Zayat puts it, Paynter's comeback celebrates life and the sheer tenacity of it. His trainer, Bob Baffert, calls Paynter the Jimmy V. of horse racing, referring, of course, to the inspirational North Carolina State basketball coach, Jim Valvano, who, despite being riddled with cancer, urged, "Don't give up; don't ever give up."

Paynter didn't give up, nor did those around him. Less than a month after his Haskell victory and 11 weeks after his runner-up finish in the Belmont Stakes, Paynter was near death. From about Aug. 22 until mid-September, as Zayat recalled it, the horse's condition remained especially fragile. Javsicas telephoned him, he said, every three hours with reports.

"I told Laura [Javsicas] to do whatever's necessary for the horse, as long as he's not in pain," Zayat said. "She was unbelievable, she was so attuned to his feelings and attitude, and we could see that he was fighting and would never give up. I had more than one adviser tell me the compassionate thing would be to let him go. But he did not want to go. He was not ready to go."

When he was most ill and threatened, Paynter had the solicitude and attention of many veterinarians, and not just those at the Upstate Equine Medical Center in New York. Zayat said he consulted experts worldwide. Bryan Fraley, a Kentucky Veterinarian who specializes in podiatry and is also a farrier, was brought in to make supportive casts for Paynter's enfeebled feet. But it was Javsicas who became his primary caretaker.

"I spent a lot of time with him, many nights, the entire month of September," Javsicas said, and in the background, her husband, David, could be heard joking that he became jealous. "I got to know him very well," she continued about Paynter. "He's an exceptionally tough horse, with a very strong personality . . . He never had a defining problem that let us think it was time to stop. He maintained a good attitude, even when it was obvious he wasn't feeling well. He enjoyed going outside and was very social."

Javsicas explained that the care of Paynter was throughout propelled by noble intentions. What's best for the horse? How severe is his pain? The questions became lodestars.

Once his fever and diarrhea subsided, the laminitis, which is the inflammation of the laminae in the feet, became the foremost threat to his life. Laminitis is frequently debilitating, often fatal. Ultimately it's what forced the euthanasia of Barbaro in January of 2007. When he developed laminitis in his front feet, he literally had no leg to stand on, nothing that could support his weight.

In Paynter's case, the laminitis didn't develop beyond the "early stages," Javsicas said, explaining that colt's feet were treated with cryotherapy, or extreme cold. And the therapy proved so effective that although his feet were inflamed, the coffin bone within each foot was never displaced. Still, for several weeks last year, Paynter's health and future remained indeterminate and unforeseeable.

"He was always my favorite because he's so tough," Baffert said about Paynter. "I told Mr. Zayat that if any of these horses could get through this, he's the one. But when Paynter got so sick, I was so depressed. It was like a son was in the Intensive Care Unit."

Once Paynter's feet stabilized, doctors went after the source of the original infection and found it in the intestines, specifically the cecum. When that was removed, Paynter began to improve quickly, and his recovery became so dramatic, so reassuring, that he became, by popular vote, the first winner of the Secretariat Vox Populi Award.

In late December, after some convalescent time at the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center, Paynter was ready to resume his career. But what career exactly would that be? Tardy to the dance, he had raced only six times, winning three, but at this point, for such a valuable horse whose medical history had become a cautionary tale, could a racing career be wise? Was it financially prudent? Breeders tossed around flashy numbers with alluring zeroes, and they promised to toss them in Zayat's direction if only he would agree to allow Paynter to take up residence at this farm or that one to begin a stallion career. But Zayat ignored them, or rather he deferred to Paynter.

But, when Paynter got so sick, I was so depressed. It was like a son was in the Intensive Care Unit.

-- Trainer Bob Baffert

"He fought so majestically to come back, how could I deprive him of his right to be a racehorse," Zayat said. "He gave me courage; he inspired me. He's very special, and he has not lost his determination. He still hears the call, and I must respect his right to race."

Paynter returned to California on Dec. 29 to prepare for his return to racing. But before he could get approval to proceed or be insured, a battalion of veterinarians examined him over four days. Baffert said he never has seen a horse so thoroughly scrutinized by so many vets. They found nothing to discourage his return. In fact, the long-term effects of his ordeal, Javsicas said, should be minimal. And incredible as it might seem, given where he was 10 months ago, Paynter could recover his dazzling form and even become the racehorse nature intended. That's precisely what Baffert expects.

"If you look at him and watch him train, you'd never know he was ever sick," Baffert said, amazement in his voice. "He looks like the old Paynter … He looks great. He's probably going to need a race -- there's nothing like a race -- but after this on Friday, we'll probably send him into stakes competition."

Since the end of February, when Paynter breezed three-eighths of a mile in 36 seconds at Santa Anita, he has put it 13 more workouts, their distances gradually increasing, their seriousness slowly intensifying. On June 1, out of the starting gate at Santa Anita, Paynter worked three-quarters of a mile in the company of Fast Bullet, a brilliant speedster who hadn't raced since the Breeders' Cup Sprint. They stayed together throughout, Baffert said, all the way to the wire, where they completed the six furlongs by the official clock in 1:12.80. That was the bullet, or fastest move of the day for the distance. A week later, Fast Bullet won the True North Stakes at Belmont Park.

And so now Paynter returns, his comeback a testament to his determination and to the courage of every superlative racehorse who defines himself on the track by racing. But, even more perhaps, his comeback is a tribute to all those people who make such miracles happen, who dedicate their expertise and their time, who invest their emotions and their resources and, yes, their love, to the horses themselves and to the belief that such an arresting creature as Paynter, one of the fastest marvels in nature, indeed has a sacred right to race.