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Paynter Carries Miracle Tag in San Diego

By HANK  WESCH

“Miracles” happen in sports.

There were the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series. The 1980 Miracle On Ice medal round game of the 1980 Olympics which moved announcer Al Michael, in the last seconds of an improbable U.S. win over Russia, to his historic:  “Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!” To name just two.

On Saturday, a horse that carries the “miracle” tag as the result of an incredible recovery from near death, will make the second start of his remarkable comeback in the $200,000, Grade II San Diego Handicap.

The horse is a 4-year-old son of Awesome Again named Paynter. The folks who are using the word miracle to describe him are owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and thousands who followed Paynter’s plight for two emotional months starting a year ago in July.

"He is a miracle,” Baffert said. “I have never seen a horse go through what he did and survive."

“Well, if you don't believe in miracles, you certainly have to start believing in one,” Zayat said. “Because seeing Paynter—first of all, his attitude —he's a warrior.  He's a champion.  He has an incredible heart.  The way he inspired me, fans, his trainer, everybody; the fight he put up and his tenacity was unbelievable.  It's just—words cannot describe it.”

Paynter rocketed to national prominence with a runner-up performance in the Belmont Stakes in June of 2012 in only his fifth career start. Seven weeks later came a rousing 3 3/4-length victory in the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

But a few days after the Haskell, while still at Monmouth Park, Paynter spiked a temperature and a series of medical issues began that would result in two months of stays at equine clinics in New Jersey, upstate New York and finally the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center of Veterinary Medicine.

At one point, while being treated for colitis, Paynter had his feet fitted with casts after showing signs of the hoof disease laminitis and his weight was dangerously down.

Through it all, Ahmed Zayat stayed in close contact with veterinarians keeping virtual 24-hour watch on the horse.

“Maybe three or four times (the thinking was) let him rest in peace, so to speak,” Zayat said.  “And we kept telling each other, ‘Let's give him another half hour or 15 minutes and then talk.’  And somehow every time, when we are so close, he would just perk up.  He'd do something that would give us an indication that ‘Don't give up on me yet.’ He would, all of the sudden, like have an appetite to eat.  Every time we were close to pulling the plug, he would give us an indication that said ‘not yet.’”

First word of Paynter’s difficulties came to Baffert on the evening after Game On Dude finished a disappointing second to Dullahan as the favorite in the Pacific Classic. Through what only could be described as a rough patch in his life, which included the death of his father, Baffert rode the emotional roller coaster with the other Paynter followers.

"During those two months, it seemed like every night it was: ‘If he doesn't get better, we'll have to put him down,’" Baffert recalled.

It was at New Bolton, where Barbaro had fought the gallant but unsuccessful fight for his life, that Paynter had an abscessed area of his colon removed on October 3.

He recovered at an equine therapy facility in Maryland and returned to Baffert's stable at Santa Anita on December 29.

On June 14 at Hollywood Park, Paynter returned to racing and absolutely dominated an allowance field. Baffert, Zayat and racing fans everywhere fought the tears, many unsuccessfully, but with the consolation they were tears of joy. 

The whole story unfolded virtually in real time via the modern miracle, to some, of social media with Zayat’s son Justin, a 21-year old junior at New York University, spearheading the Twitter and Facebook effort.

"Our phones were just blowing up,” Justin Zayat said. “Everyone wanted to know about Paynter and we thought, why not? Tweet it so we can communicate with them all at one time. It was a great journey with lows and highs. There were times when we thought we were going to have to put him down and times when he was jumping out of his skin."

The Zayats' Twitter efforts started around Kentucky Derby time in 2012 and centered on Bodemeister, their colt who would finish second in both the Derby and Preakness. They continued with Paynter's runner-up in the Belmont Stakes. But it was during the Paynter medical drama that Justin's Twitter following increased 10-fold from the couple thousand it was.

"People who said they didn't know anything about racing were (responding) that they were praying for Paynter. (Interest) kept growing every day," Justin remembered. "My objective was to be more transparent for the fans and keep them informed about what was going on with Paynter. (Social media) is, in my opinion, the best way to reach out to young people and let them know about the game. I hope more people in racing will do the same. “

The next chapter for Paynter will unfold on Saturday. If it has something close to a happy ending, the next logical race, as Ahmed Zayat has said, could be the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic on Sunday, August 25.

Miracles never cease.

 

 

 

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