Racing season enters far turn

Last year's Haskell winner is in action at Del Mar this weekend in the San Diego Handicap. Horsephotos.com

Here it comes, something to relieve the tedium of the estival furnace, arriving quicker than you can say "the inner ring of Dante's seventh circle," a double blast of refreshing intrigue. Paynter returns for the second start of an astonishingly revitalized career; and in a development that's even more remarkable, most of the best 3-year-olds return this weekend, too. In other words, the two most compelling stories for the first half of the year, instead of disappearing as they usually do into a skein of orange cones that generally signal an imminent lane closing, resume.

And as they do, from here they appear to be on a definite vector, one that takes Palace Malice to a championship and Paynter into the Breeders' Cup Classic as one of the favorites.

The 3-year-olds always dominate the sport's first season, or rather they control the spotlight and monopolize the conversation, all the way through the Triple Crown, and then many of them retreat into the shadows or disappear altogether during the championship season, leaving modern fans frozen in anticipation on the edges of their tweets. Last year, for example, I'll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, retired on the eve of the Belmont. After finishing second in both the Derby and Preakness, Bodemeister didn't race again, but was retired with a shoulder injury. Union Rags never raced again after winning the Belmont Stakes. And Paynter nearly died after winning the Haskell. He returned only last month, somewhat miraculously, in Lazarus fashion you might say if only Lazarus could have run seven-eighths of a mile in 1:21.86.

And last year wasn't an aberration. The bright stars of the first half of the year often become the black holes of the second. How inconspicuous have they been? Well, it has been 23 years since a horse won the Kentucky Derby and then, in the same season, finished better than fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. During that period, only one Belmont Stakes winner, A. P. Indy, and one Preakness winner, Curlin, concluded their campaigns with a victory in the Classic, and only seven Derby winners even ran in it.

Given the recent history, Sunday's Haskell and Saturday's Jim Dandy seem extraordinary, so extraordinary and compelling, in fact, that after this weekend, the race to be champion 3-year-old could have a clear leader. The Belmont Stakes winner, Palace Malice, could seize that role with a victory in the Jim Dandy, as could the Preakness winner, Oxbow, with a victory in the Haskell. Or, should both lose, then Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, could become the default leader as he awaits the Travers. On the other hand, since the Triple Crown was, more than anything, inconclusive, could the next champion 3-year-old be someone other than Orb, Oxbow or Palace Malice?

Improbably but maybe: It has happened only three times in the last 30 years that the champion 3-year-old colt didn't win a Triple Crown race. Two of those champs, by the way, Holy Bull and Skip Away, won the Haskell, which suggests that Micromanage, Golden Soul, Power Broker and Verrazano could immediately put themselves in the championship picture, or at least in the fuzzy, out-of-focus periphery, with a victory Sunday at Monmouth Park.

Baffert The Haskell's a very tough race. Is he [Power Broker] that good? I don't know, but he's doing so well that we wanted to ask the question.

-- Bob Baffert, trainer of Power Broker

Power Broker and Verrazano appear especially capable of a win. In his last outing, in the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont, Power Broker led virtually from the start. Although surrounded by challengers to the stretch, he and his rider, Rosie Napravnik, cruised along serenely until she called and he answered, and then they quickly drew clear, beating Micromanage by nearly five lengths.

Power Broker was aimed at the West Virginia Derby until he worked so impressively Tuesday at Del Mar that he persuaded his trainer, Bob Baffert, to go for the Haskell instead. In company with the speedy Drill, Power Broker worked five-eighths of a mile on the official watch in 1:00.80, and, even more impressively, he went out seven-eighths in 1:25.80.

"He was just cruising," Baffert said of Power Broker. "He never took a deep breath. He's sitting on a big effort … The Haskell's a very tough race. Is he [Power Broker] that good? I don't know, but he's doing so well that we wanted to ask the question."

Despite the presence of the Preakness winner in the field, Verrazano could be the Haskell favorite. He has won five races, including three stakes, by a total of 37 lengths, and his only loss, a staggering 14th in the Kentucky Derby, came on a sloppy track. A hypertrophic mass of muscle, Verrazano doesn't look like a classic horse, and indeed the pivotal question following him into the Haskell regards distance. But because his victories and even his workouts have come so easy for him, there also remains the question of just how good might he be.

But from here, Palace Malice appears to be the 3-year-old most likely to become the divisional champion. A late foal who, as Dogwood Stable president Cot Campbell said, has "always touted himself," Palace Malice finally figured out the purpose of all this running in circles when he won the Belmont. And since then, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher, the son of Curlin has become bigger and stronger and has continued to progress.

The Jim Dandy has attracted a standout field that includes Mylute, who ran third in the Preakness, and Vyjack, the winner of the Gotham and Jerome, as well as Moreno, the Dwyer winner, and Freedom Child, the romping winner of the Peter Pan. Code West, Will Take Charge, Looking Cool, Bashaar and Perfect Title -- they, too, can make an argument for themselves.

Orb, of course, is at this moment the most accomplished 3-year-old in the country. But if Palace Malice beats this field Saturday at Saratoga, he could immediately become the favorite for the Travers and for the title. And so here's a quick and early line on the race for the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old, based not on what they've accomplished, but on what they could:

1. Palace Malice (3-1): the one to beat in the Jim Dandy
2. Oxbow (7-2): has a tougher task in the Haskell
3. Orb (4-1): reportedly doing well waiting for the Travers
4. Verrazano (8-1): has more questions than losses
5. Power Broker (10-1): continues to improve and impress
6. Chief Havoc (15-1): takes on his elders Saturday
7. Mylute (20-1): always close, but hasn't won this year
8. Golden Soul (20-1): still looking for his second victory
9. Micromanage (20-1): unbeaten in two races at Monmouth
10. All others (20-1): includes several good ones

As for the second blast of refreshing intrigue, that could soon develop into the best story in racing and one of the best in all of sports. Paynter takes on five rivals in Saturday's San Diego Stakes at Del Mar. His story's well known by now, but stories of inspiration never become banal, even with frequent retelling, and so here it is again, in the synoptic version.

After he won the Haskell, Paynter got pneumonia, and as he recovered from that he developed severe colitis, which led to endotoxemia. Essentially, toxins in his blood were waging a war against him, and for a while they were winning. Acute fever and diarrhea squeezed him like a sponge. And then laminitis went after him.

But his caretakers never surrendered, nor did he, and last month Paynter returned to win an allowance race at Hollywood Park. In the San Diego, where he makes his return to stakes competition, he'll take on a formidable group that includes Kettle Corn, the Hollywood Gold Cup runner-up; stablemate Liaison, a three-time stakes winner; Chief Havoc, the Swaps winner; and Clubhouse Ride, the Californian winner.

Baffert, who trains Paynter, said the 4-year-old "doesn't love" Del Mar's synthetic surface and is probably more effective on a traditional dirt track. But Baffert explained that he was hesitant to travel with Paynter so soon after the horse's resounding victory in his first race back. And if Paynter takes the San Diego, then the Pacific Classic would become an option for him, one of many options, the others being in the East, at Saratoga perhaps or, later, at Belmont Park, all intended to lead up to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

"He's more impressive in his races than he is in his works," Baffert said about Paynter. "He's not going to show much in the mornings. But he's doing well."

And so Paynter goes for the San Diego, which could lead to the Breeders' Cup, and the top 3-year-olds are convening around the Jim Dandy and the Haskell. They're the sport's compelling stories, perhaps even traditional -- you know the sort, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Well, and here's the best part, this is just the middle.