07/25/2013 1:00PM

Jay Hovdey: Liaison's connections can relate to Paynter's story

Benoit & Associates
Liaison makes his first start over Del Mar's Polytrack since September 2011 in Saturday's San Diego Handicap.

Pity the public handicapper who takes a stand against Paynter on Saturday in the $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. Better that he or she should come out in favor of burning baby chicks in the city square.

In his capacity as the miracle horse of 2013 and the darling of racing’s social media, Paynter has transcended all known boundaries of rational evaluation. He is the Thoroughbred who came back from the near dead, not only to live and breath, but to run, and run fast. Call him Lazarus. Call him Phoenix. Call him Ishmael.

Or just call him in front at the end of the San Diego, which has otherwise drawn a very salty field of hard-boiled older horses that includes Clubhouse Ride, Kettle Corn, Batti Man, and Liaison, plus the quick 3-year-old Chief Havoc. If Paynter can rise from the depths of founder to beat this bunch, then his next race should be at Lourdes.

The Thoroughbred, like most large organisms, is easy to damage but hard to kill. Assault maimed his right front foot stepping on a surveyor’s stake and still won the Triple Crown. Cigar suffered a gory shoulder gash in a pasture accident and went on to win nearly $10 million. Personal Ensign was 11 for 11 with one ankle screwed together. And on and on.

Arnold and Ellen Zetcher know all about miracle recoveries. They were there at Santa Anita in March of 2011 when their 4-year-old filly Always a Princess fractured both sesamoids in her left fore while fighting with the accomplished Switch on the lead in the prestigious Santa Margarita Invitational.

To that point Always a Princess, by Leroidesanimeaux, had won three Grade 2 events and was in the best form of her life. The seasamoids went somewhere approaching the sixteenth pole, and her momentum carried her nearly to the wire before Martin Garcia was able to slow her down. At that point Always a Princess collapsed to her right side, sending Garcia sprawling and a horrified chill through the crowd.

It’s one thing to have a horse go wrong on the distant backstretch, but quite another when you can practically reach out and touch the fallen animal. The Zetchers, with their box at the lip of the nearby mezzanine level, imagined they could see the fear and confusion in the eyes of their filly. When Arnold Zetcher arrived at her side, he and his trainer, Bob Baffert, were told that she might need to be put down.

Then she got up.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Zetcher said this week. “It was almost as if she knew she had to lie down right away to survive. Who knows? It might have saved her. As it was, she was only given a 10 percent chance of making it after the surgery to fuse the ankle. But she made it.”

In recovery, Always a Princess dodged the laminitis that nearly killed Paynter. Her survival was its own reward, and then the Zetchers were rewarded with a healthy Medaglia d’Oro colt foaled by Always a Princess on Jan. 26, which means the little fellow will turn six months old on the day before the San Diego. They hope to celebrate by spoiling the Paynter party with their Indian Charlie colt Liaison, and given his current form who’s to say they won’t.

Liaison, winner of the 2011 CashCall Futurity, was thoroughly tested last year at 3 when he tried the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Swaps, the Jim Dandy, and the Travers. The most he had to show for his efforts was a close second in the Affirmed and a couple of thirds, and by late summer he’d earned a rest.

Since returning in early March, Liaison has done little wrong. He won the minor Santana Mile at Santa Anita, took the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy at Hollywood, then finished second in Hollywood’s Californian when Clubhouse Ride ran the best race of his life.

“After that we passed on the Hollywood Gold Cup to point for the San Diego and the Pacific Classic here at Del Mar,” Zetcher said. “Even so, it was hard not to watch the Gold Cup and wonder what might have been, although I try not to second guess.”

Game On Dude, Liaison’s superstar stablemate, won the Gold Cup over Kettle Corn, the horse Liaison beat in the LeRoy. Baffert, shuffling his best older horses, will keep Game On Dude in the barn Saturday while Liaison and Paynter go forth in the San Diego. For Liaison, this will be his first start over Del Mar’s synthetic surface since finishing third in a maiden race in September of 2011.

“I’ve seen him train at Santa Anita quite a bit, and I watched him gallop here the other day,” Zetcher said. “He acted like a very happy horse. We talked about sending him out of town for a race, but then he’d be coming up against tough horses no matter where he went. We’re just fortunate to have a horse good enough to be in races like this.”

The Zetchers may have unveiled their next big thing last Sunday with the runaway win of Spring Moon, a 2-year-old daughter of Zensational trained by Baffert.

“It was just a maiden win, and you don’t want to get ahead of yourself,” Zetcher said. “But it’s hard not to get excited and wonder what the future could bring.”

And isn’t that the point? Liaison and Paynter, with their Baffert blue shadow rolls and the same number of Grade 1 wins on their r é sum é s, will be side by side in the San Diego starting gate on Saturday, and nothing but the next mile and one sixteenth will matter.

“Paynter is an amazing horse,” Zetcher said. “Everyone’s followed what’s happened to him over the last year, and everybody roots for Paynter.

“So do we,” he added, “except when we’re running against him.”