07/25/2013 2:48PM

Paynter's return a year in the making

Shigeki Kikkawa
Paynter romps in an allowance race at Hollywood on June 14, when he made his triumphant return to the races.

At no point in the 11 months leading up to Paynter’s June 14 return at Hollywood Park did a stretch call of this tenor seem possible:

“Paynter is riding the rail, and now he’s opening up,” track announcer Vic Stauffer called that day. “Paynter has put a four-length lead on Majestic City in second, Fly Lexis Fly, and Kate’s Event, but Paynter is clear to the sixteenth pole and he’s running beautifully. Welcome back, big guy! Paynter comes to the wire, and he cruises to victory. Wow, good for you, Paynter!”

Fans who spent the last year watching one of racing’s most promising young talents fight for his life turned their concerns into cheers that day, when Paynter roared down the stretch to win an allowance race by 4 1/2 lengths. The horse who entered the winner’s circle had successfully recovered from ailments that have claimed many horses.

“As soon as he got close to the comeback race, I was so nervous,” said Justin Zayat, racing and stallion manager for his father Ahmed’s Zayat Stables. “Every single person in the industry’s watching, everyone’s rooting for Paynter, and it was unbelievable how he did it. I think every single person wanted to cry that was standing with us.”

The finish line at Hollywood Park was a long way from the intensive care unit in upstate New York and the operating table in Southeast Pennsylvania that Paynter once occupied. The horse himself has come a long way since life-threatening colitis and laminitis reduced him to a 900-pound husk.

Paynter makes his next start in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on Saturday, almost one year since he began his unlikely road from convalescence to the racetrack.

At this time last year, Paynter had just secured trainer Bob Baffert his third straight win in the Haskell after running a game second in the Belmont Stakes. He appeared to be among the favorites for the upcoming Travers Stakes, but those plans were quickly derailed.

“Winning the Haskell was probably the greatest thrill ever,” Zayat said. “Coming after the Belmont loss, I just wanted Paynter to have revenge and show everyone he was the best 3-year-old out there. Then he wins it and I’m on cloud nine. I called my dad and said, ‘We’re ready for the Travers! We’re going! We’re going!’

“We were all super-excited, and suddenly, two days later, we get a text from Bob that Paytner has a fever and has to go to the clinic.”

DRF WEEKEND: Twitter captured Paynter saga's ups and downs

MORE: Barbara Livingston on exercise riders, part 2 | Handicapping roundups

Paynter was quietly taken to the Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in Ringoes, N.J., on July 31, when he was treated for a fever and pneumonia. He was released about a week later to resume training. After it was clear that he would not be ready for the Travers, Ahmed Zayat said Aug. 13 that Paynter would target the Pennsylvania Derby or Jockey Club Gold Cup for his next start.

Two weeks later, Paynter was in a stall at Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville, N.Y., ­seriously ill with another fever and severe diarrhea. He was diagnosed with colitis, an inflammation of the colon, and his condition rapidly began to deteriorate. Paynter was placed on around-the-clock watch, led by Dr. Laura Javsicas.

“Initially, he was dehydrated and had signs of endotoxemia, and horses in that condition can become worse very quickly, or can improve very rapidly with treatment, depending on the situation,” Javsicas said. “He was treated with fluids, antibiotics, anti-endotoxemic treatments. Endotoxemia is something we worry about when they have inflammation in their gastrointestinal tract, and they can get toxins from their GI tract into their bloodstream, and that’s what predisposes them to laminitis.”

In early September, Paynter was found to be developing laminitis in three of his four feet. A painful hoof disease, laminitis has earned a reputation as a potential death sentence, claiming a horse slowly, hoof by hoof, as the horse’s weight shifts to the noninfected feet, which become overburdened and weak themselves. Javsicas said Paynter’s case was caught early in the developmental stage, before it reached the grave levels of other high-profile laminitis cases, such as Barbaro and Secretariat.

PHOTO: Paynter, Rafael Bejarano up, after the Haskell on July 29, 2012. He was treated for a fever and pneumonia two days later, the first of his many ailments. (Nikki Sherman)

Paynter underwent cryotherapy – essentially, putting ice on his feet – in an attempt to stop the swelling before the bones in his hooves reached the dangerous point of rotating.

“He did have signs of mild foot pain, but it was easily controlled, and luckily we could get his feet stabilized before any rotation occurred,” Javsicas said.

Adding to those problems, Paynter developed an infection at the site of his feeding catheter, and blood clotting further complicated his ability to get proper nutrients. Meanwhile, his inflamed colon and ongoing diarrhea sapped any nourishment he was still getting, causing his weight and blood protein levels to plummet.

As the list of ailments grew, the Zayats realized they would be faced with a tough decision. 

“It came to a point where my dad and I were going back and forth, just saying, ‘Wow, this horse has gone through so much. We don’t want him to suffer. I think it’s time,’ Zayat said. “Every single time we’d have that discussion, the next text we’d get from Dr. Laura would be something positive. We’d be going from getting ready to let go to hopeful again.”

Zayat and Javsicas said Paynter’s demeanor was critical to saving his life. He put his aggressive on-track personality aside to accept treatment and avoid aggravating any of his delicate conditions.

“He would soak up every single thing Dr. Laura wanted, whether it was putting a catheter in his throat, injections, or whatever,” Zayat said. “He’d just take it like a man and stand there.”

Paynter outlasted the rough stretch and was eventually allowed to graze outside. He began passing solid fecal matter, his fever went down, and his protein levels stabilized, but he remained a sick horse.

Paynter once again drew the concern of his caretakers when an abscess was discovered in his abdomen. He was sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for surgery in early October, led by Dr. Louise Southwood.

PHOTO: Dr. Laura Javsicas, who cared for Paynter when he had colitis diagnosed last August, catches up with the colt in October at Fair Hill Therapy Center. (Courtesy of Justin Zayat)

“I was actually pretty hopeful at that point, because he had improved in so many ways, and I felt that a lot of his remaining issues would be resolved if the area of his intestine that was a problem was removed,” Javsicas said, assessing Paynter’s status when he left her care. “I was nervous about him undergoing surgery and recovering, but after seeing how tough he was, I didn’t think he would have much of an issue. It was hard to let him go, but I had complete confidence in [the New Bolton staff].”

At New Bolton, doctors removed a 35-centimeter area of Paynter’s cecum, a pouch in his large intestine, which had at least two areas of abscess. Zayat identified the procedure as a turning point in the colt’s progress. His appetite returned, his fever began to permanently stabilize, and his setbacks became less frequent.

Two weeks later, Paynter was transferred to Fair Hill Therapy Center in Elkton, Md., to begin recovery.

“He was a horse that obviously had been through a horrendous time,” said Bruce Jackson, the center’s manager. “He had really weathered the storm, and it was quite incredible that he was actually still alive. He weighed just over 900 pounds and was very gaunt and underweight.”

At the Therapy Center, the most important thing Paynter received was time to rest. In addition to the standard hand-grazing and walking, Jackson said Paynter spent time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which saturates the horse’s blood with oxygen and delivers it on a cellular level to aid in the healing process.

“We did nothing particularly special, I will say, except the hyperbaric oxygen treatments,” Jackson said. “Beyond that, we let him be a horse, gave him plenty of time, and gave him absolutely everything he could possibly need to recover, and he did the rest.”

Slowly but surely, Paynter started to recover. With it came the colt’s old playful, aggressive attitude, a healthier body weight, and energy to burn.

As he progressed, Zayat said there was still no timetable to decide whether Paynter would return to the track, be retired to a potentially lucrative stud career, or simply be put out to pasture to live the rest of his life. They were going to let the horse make the decision, and he did just that.

“Bruce sent me a video of him in his paddock running around and kicking his legs,” Zayat said. “I showed it to my dad and went, ‘Dad, oh my God, this is not the Paynter that I know.’ My dad had a big smile on his face when he saw the video.

“We still never thought about Paynter coming back,” Zayat continued. “We were just saying ‘Wow, he’s really perked up and he looks great.’ But then, Bruce said, ‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with this horse. He’s like a normal horse now.’ And then we started thinking maybe he could come back and race.”

From the first check-in following his Haskell win to his last day at Fair Hill Therapy Center, Zayat estimated the total cost of Paynter’s treatment and recovery was around $200,000.

Paynter returned to Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita Park on Dec. 29. As far as they had come, Zayat said getting the horse back on the racetrack was equally delicate.

“We just told Bob, ‘Take your time with him, zero rush,” he said. “Just see if you can bring him back. If not, we’ll pull the plug. If Paynter tells you he does not want to train, or is in any pain, we’ll stop as soon as you tell us,’ but he never gave us that sign. Every single day, he’d be getting stronger and stronger, and his exercise rider came back thrilled, and Bob was happy.”

Paynter turned in the first timed workout of his return Feb. 26 – three furlongs in 36 seconds flat. True to form, Paynter was given as much time as he needed to show he was ready to race, and four months later at Hollywood, it started to pay off.

While the comeback win will be credited in the record books to owner Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert, it was an emotional victory for everyone who had a hand in Paynter’s well-being over the last 11 months.

“I was speechless, quite frankly,” Jackson said. “It was something special. It really was.”

John Lyons More than 1 year ago
why is there some video of a turf race at BHP????? I thought I was going to relive Paynter's return to the races -- WTF??????
steve szymanski More than 1 year ago
Wow. A lot of comments from the females........ Racing should target that audience
[removed] More than 1 year ago
This comment has been deleted
Alan Bush More than 1 year ago
Have you I shame? Take your garbage elsewhere. you must be an awful person to poston a story like this. Get a life!
Casey Phillips More than 1 year ago
Paynter's story is nothing short of a miracle, of complete faith by the Zayats in Paynter's medical team and also in the power of prayer. If Paynter's story were made into a movie, people who don't know the full story, were not involved in the tweets, the prayer chains, the candles being lit, the encouragement given to the Zayats from the fans and the gratefulness expressed numerous times by the Zayats, would think that it had been "Hollywoodized". I'm one of the west coast fans who has had the privilege of being given access to Paynter, and seeing first hand, his return to training, to getting his strength (and his 'tude!!) back, his comeback race and I will be in Del Mar on Saturday to see him again. Truly a wonderful story.
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
Here is the correct video of Paynter's comeback at Hollywood Park: http://youtu.be/WZRXE4hwXwI Vic Stauffer noticeably choked up at the conclusion of the race. Paynter's struggle to survive was of importance and interest to people even outside the sport. Literally thousands prayed for this horse, shared tears and laughter at the ups and downs, and the incredible daily updates from Mr. Zayat, along with the vets, the hospital personnel, all played a part in this remarkable story that so often in the past has had a tragic ending. Many sent prayers. Many were moved to make donations to horse charities or visit sites to "light a candle for Paynter!" We all shared the highs and lows with his connections, especially Mr. Zayat as he gave daily updates to fans hungry for some good news. So many times Mr. Zayat reported to the fans in his updates that it didn't look good, that he was having to consider the worst possible of the choices which any owner can contemplate, whether it was time to let him go. Each time this decision would present itself, it seemed that Paynter would find new strength and new resolve to defy the odds. This really was the story -- the part that the owner and the fans played in helping to keep spirits up, to find strength to go on, with the fans acting as a kind of "12th man" for the Zayat family as they traversed this amazing journey. Paynter was the overwhelming favorite to win the Secretariat Vox Populi award, and his struggle to survive was voted the NTRA Moment of the Year. When he won his comeback race, that was the icing on the cake to an emotional ride many of us won't soon forget. His story is still being written, as he goes to the starting gate one more time in the San Diego Handicap on Saturday. Power Up, Paynter!
Daniel Garcia More than 1 year ago
Go Paynter!
Dee R. Eff More than 1 year ago
A great story and glad to have a healthy Paynter back. But, the long after the fact post Haskell spin needs correction. After the Haskell he spiked a short lived temperature. With no one to care for him he was sent to the NJ clinic. He was not diagnosed with or treated for pneumonia. A horse that has and is being treated for pneumonia is not put in training a week later as he was and as the article states. This was a concocted story many months after to alleve the joviality from Baffert and Zayat as they thought nothing to be wrong at that time. Again, glad to have a healthy Paynter back at the track.
Brodieville More than 1 year ago
this article brings tears. I was lucky enough to be at Hollywood Park for Paynter's return to racing. kudos to everyone who cared about, nursed, treated, and prayed for, this horse. I hope he never loses another race, and that he has loving sponsors around him for the rest of his days- especially when the racing is all over.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
Power Up, Paynter! I'll be sharing this story with my non-horse racing fans so maybe they can see just why we love horses and this sport so much. I've always liked Paynter, but I was overjoyed to see his comeback win. I don't care if he ever wins another race, but I'll certainly be rooting him on in the San Diego and all future races. Good luck to Paynter, and a big THANK YOU to all his connections and the veterinary personnel who aided in his miraculous recovery.
Jim Qaukey More than 1 year ago
Very well said Amy , i`m a fan of horse racing and love anyone of Awesome Again kids and Paynter is just like his dad a fighter on and off the track ,WELCOME BACK BIG GUY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Paynter is an amazing gift to all. An inspirational story that goes well beyond horse racing. I'm thankful to be a witness.