Comeback Kid" Paynter faces six in G1 Woodward
By Jenny Kellner | 08/28/2013 05:57 PM ET
A year ago, no one was sure if Paynter would survive, much less make it back to the races.
When he finally did return, no one was sure if he could be nearly as good as he once was.
On Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, the 4-year-old colt continues his amazing comeback when he faces six of the top older horses in the country including Successful Dan, Fort Larned and Flat Out in the 60th running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward.
"It's an incredible story," said Paynter's Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, of Paynter, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line. "It was so emotional, what he went through for two months. Now that he's back, I really want him to take on the big guys, because he's a big guy himself."
Paynter's saga began when he developed a fever shortly after his 3 ¾-length victory in the 2012 Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. On the heels of that came colitis, followed by laminitis in three of his four hoofs. Aggressively treated, the colt survived both life-threatening illnesses but dropped to under 1,000 pounds. The decision was made to remove a section of his intestines, after which things began to turn around. On December 29, Paynter returned to Baffert's barn in California.
"Once we got him at New Bolton [where the surgery was performed], he was 100 percent after the [section of] intestine was removed," said Baffert. "We went real easy on him when he first came in. Some horses, when they come in off a layoff, pick it up right away. The first 60 days with him were critical.
"Then, all of a sudden," added Baffert, "he was, 'I'm ready to go full contact.'"
On June 14 at Betfair Hollywood Park, Paynter zipped to a 4 ½-length victory in a seven-furlong allowance, earning a career-best 114 Beyer Speed Figure. Six weeks later, he finished a gallant second, beaten a half-length, by Kettle Corn in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar at 1 1/16 miles.
"I didn't want to run him in the Pacific Classic," said Baffert. "The Woodward is a great race, pointing to the Breeders' Cup. We're excited about running him. It's a tough field, but he's tough."
Rafael Bejarano will be aboard Paynter when he leaves from post position 5.
The older half-brother of reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, 5-1 morning-line favorite Successful Dan appears to have hit his best stride this summer at the Spa. The 7-year-old gelded son of Successful Appeal rebounded from a fourth-place finish behind Fort Larned in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs to run a game second on August 3 to Cross Traffic in the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational Handicap, a race he was forced to skip last year with an injury.
"He's doing so well up here; I couldn't be happier with him," said Charles LoPresti, who trains Successful Dan and Wise Dan for Morton Fink. "He's had his issues through the years, but knock wood, he's been as good as I've had him. He's training good, he's doing good, he's had super good breezes since then, everything's good with his legs, and I'm really excited to run him in this race.
"Every time that he has come into his own and really started to show the kind of horse he is, there's always something that goes wrong," he added. "It's been kind of tough at times, but maybe we'll shine this time ... I would just like for everybody to see that he is as good a horse as I've said all along."
With Julien Leparoux in the irons, Successful Dan will leave from post position 2.
Fort Larned, front-running winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic, has yet to string together a pair of top performances so far this year. After losing his rider at the start of the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, he was fifth when hustled back into the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap four weeks later, and scored his lone win of the year with a 6 ¼-length romp in the Stephen Foster.
Sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the Whitney, Fort Larned got off to a slow start, was wide around both turns and finished fifth, beaten 4 ¼ lengths.
"I haven't lost any confidence in him," said trainer Ian Wilkes of Janis R. Whitham's homebred. "He's had a different schedule than last year - he hasn't raced as much - but the objective is still the same: get back to the Classic. I think the whole division is very strong this year, and this race is going to be as tough or tougher than the last one [Whitney]."
Brian Hernandez, who came in from Kentucky to work Fort Larned five furlongs in 1:00.86 on Monday morning, will ride the 4-1 program choice from post position 3.
Finishing a half-length behind Fort Larned in the Classic was Mucho Macho Man, who was eased in his first start of the year, the Sunshine Millions Classic, then finished third in the Criminal Type overnight stakes on June 14 at Belmont Park and the Whitney, in which he was 2 ¼ length behind Cross Traffic.
"It's certainly going to be tough, but he's coming into this race better than he did into the Whitney, because we had run into a couple of problems early in the year with a bacterial infection and so forth," said owner Dean Reeves. "So this will be his third race back, and we're looking for him to improve on that race in the Whitney, and hopefully it'll be good enough to get that group of horses, which are a fine group, in this coming Woodward."
Riding Mucho Man Man, 6-1 on the morning line, from post position 6 will be Hall of Famer Edgar Prado.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott will send out the potent pair of Flat Out and Ron the Greek in the Woodward, a race the trainer won last year with To Honor and Serve.
Owned by Preston Stables, Flat Out has not run since taking the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap on July 6, his second win in three starts at Belmont Park this year. The 7-year-old took the Grade 3 Westchester on April 27, and next suffered his first defeat in five starts at Belmont when he was third to Sahara Sky in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.
Mott had considered running Flat Out in the Whitney but elected to await the Woodward.
"We thought if he was doing really, really well going into the Whitney, we'd run," he said. "We worked him and thought he maybe wasn't on his game 100 percent. He has always had issues with his feet, and we thought we needed a little more time for one of his feet. With that being said, we pointed to the Woodward. We didn't want to skip them both."
Junior Alvarado has the mount aboard Flat Out, listed at 7-2 on the morning line. The pair will leave from post position 4.
Ron the Greek, who finished fourth in the Whitney, is seeking his first graded stakes win since taking the 2012 Stephen Foster. A runaway winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic, the 6-year-old son of Full Mandate was fourth behind Game On Dude in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, third behind him in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, and third to Fort Larned in the Stephen Foster.
He will have a new jockey in Javier Castellano when he leaves from the rail as the 12-1 program choice.
Rounding out the field and leaving from post position 7 is Alpha, most recently sixth in the Whitney.
"He likes it here at Saratoga," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin of last year's co-winner of the Grade 1 Travers. "We thought we'd give him one more shot against these horses."
The field for the Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward: