07/25/2013 1:48PM

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.”

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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.”