Headlining a competitive field of six in Saturday's $750,000 Woodward Stakes, Paynter will have his work cut out for him in Saratoga. As YNN's Matt Hunter reports, win or lose, the race won't be the biggest hill the colt has climbed, not by a long shot.
SARATOGA RACE COURSE -- For anyone close enough to hear it, Paynter announced his arrival to the Saratoga backstretch loudly and proudly Wednesday night, snickering and neighing all the way to his temporary home at John Terranova's barn.
Trained by Bob Baffert, the four-year-old colt makes his return to Grade 1 stakes competition in Saturday's $750,000 Woodward Stakes. This time last summer, that feat seemed almost impossible.
"To tell you the truth, a year ago, I didn't know where we were going to be in a year's time, but I'm happy to be where we're at, that's for sure," said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, who accompanied Paynter on the flight from California Wednesday.
In the weeks leading up to last summer's Travers, where Paynter seemed poised to be the favorite after a second place finish in the Belmont Stakes and a win in the Haskell, the colt spiked a dangerous fever. Instead of walking into the starting gate, he entered a stall at the Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville.
"He was bright and alert, however, he did have fever and he had profuse diarrhea," said Dr. Tracy Bartick-Sedrish, one of the veterinarians who treated the colt for owner Ahmed Zayat.
Diagnosed with colitis, Paynter shed hundreds of pounds. As soon as doctors fixed that ailment, he developed laminitis, a dangerous hoof condition that had many fearing for Paynter's life.
"Every time we'd surmount one obstacle, another one would crop up," Bartick-Sedrish said Thursday. "There was a lot of discussion but the realization came that he was still fighting to survive and so if he's fighting, we'll keep fighting too."
Over the course of a month, Paynter received plenty of encouragement from fans far and near. He even developed a companionship with the clinic's in-house gelding, whose nickname just happens to be "Painter."
"The two of them became very attached," said Bartick-Sedrish, owner of "Painter," whose official name is Rocky Splash. "They began pressing noses together across the paddock fences, happy as two peas in a pod."
In early fall, Paynter left Upstate Equine to head for another clinic where surgery awaited. Months later, he was finally given a clean bill of health.
In June, he returned to the track, winning an allowance race at Hollywood Park. Last month, he finished second in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.
In what will be his first Grade 1 start since last July's Haskell, Saturday's Woodward marks a return to the place where the colt made his greatest triumph.
"It's always exciting," Barnes said while giving the horse a bath Wednesday. "Racing needs something like this, to have people get into it and be excited about it."
"It's a real treat to know he's back out there doing what he loves to do," said Bartick-Sedrish, who plans to be at the track Saturday. "To know that this facility could be a part of that, that's a really special thing and that's why we do what we do for the hours we do them."
Also entered in the Woodward are Alpha, one of the dead heat winners of last year's Travers, Ron The Greek, Flat Out, Successful Dan and Mucho Macho Man. It's the day's 10th race with post time set for 5:45 p.m.