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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
Miracles never cease.