09/26/2013 1:46PM

Santa Anita: Awesome Again pivotal race for Paynter

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Paynter has battled back from serious illness and wrote a storybook chapter with his dazzling comeback victory in June, but two losses since then, including the worst finish of his career last time out in the Woodward at Saratoga, have left him at a pivotal point as he approaches the $250,000 Awesome Again Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

It seems safe to say the Awesome Again will determine whether Paynter gets a chance to complete his remarkable story with a Breeders’ Cup Classic bid here at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, or has to aim for lesser prizes. And bettors will have to grapple with whether races on a sloppy, sealed track at Saratoga and the Polytrack at Del Mar have masked his form and offer a great betting opportunity, or are hints at a decline in form.

Those are far less important aspects to this saga than the overriding theme of Paynter’s career, for his comeback from illness will be remembered long after his racing days are over. But on Saturday, the most pressing question will be which Paynter shows up, and whether that Paynter will be good enough to handle his nine rivals, most notably the invaders Mucho Macho Man and Golden Ticket.

“He looks good,” Bob Baffert, who trains Paynter, said earlier this week.

Paynter finished last of five, beaten more than 12 lengths, in the Woodward. Baffert said that race can be thrown out.

“He missed the break, stepped back,” Baffert said. “Then he got all that mud in his face. That was it.”

Paynter returns to dirt Saturday, and to Santa Anita, where he won his debut then was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby in only his second lifetime start. Martin Garcia, who rode him in his first three starts, takes over for the first time since April 2012.

The Awesome Again, the 10th race on an 11-race card that starts at 1 p.m. Pacific, is the last of five Grade 1 races Saturday at Santa Anita. All offer fees-paid berths to corresponding Breeders’ Cup races through the Win and You’re In program. The Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita on Nov. 1-2.

[BREEDERS' CUP CHALLENGE: Win and You’re In schedule and results]

First up, race 5, is the Chandelier for 2-year-olds fillies, a prep for the BC Juvenile Fillies that features She’s a Tiger and Fascinating, the first two finishers in the Del Mar Debutante. The Rodeo Drive, a prep for the BC Filly and Mare Turf, follows, with Tiz Flirtatious and Marketing Mix heading a field of seven. Then comes the FrontRunner, a prep for the BC Juvenile, with the first three finishers from the Del Mar Futurity – Tamarando, Dance With Fate, and Can the Man – taking on impressive debut winner Schoolofhardrocks.

After an allowance race comes the Zenyatta, a tune-up for the BC Distaff, with Eclipse Award winner Beholder facing older standouts Authenticity, Flashy American, Include Me Out, Joyful Victory, and More Chocolate in perhaps the best race on the card.

The Awesome Again, at 1 1/8 miles, is the West’s final major prep for the $5 million BC Classic at 1 1/4 miles.

Ken McPeek, trainer of Golden Ticket, said the Win and You’re In status of the Awesome Again was among the reasons he decided to put Golden Ticket on a plane from Kentucky on Thursday morning and send him to Santa Anita rather than compete at Churchill Downs in the Homecoming Classic on Saturday night.

“The purse is better and it’s a Grade 1, and he deserves a shot in another Grade 1,” McPeek said Thursday from Kentucky. “The fields are comparable, but the upside is a little more dramatic in the Awesome Again.”

Golden Ticket, best known for dead-heating for the win in the 2012 Travers, has not raced since an easy win at Prairie Meadows on July 27.

“That was completely by design,” McPeek said. “It gives him his best chance to win this fall.”

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Mucho Macho Man, runner-up in last year’s Classic, traveled to Santa Anita earlier this month. He most recently was third in the Whitney at Saratoga. Mucho Macho Man drew the outside post, 10, in the Awesome Again, seemingly an ideal spot for the tall, long-striding horse, who will be ridden for the first time by Gary Stevens.

“We’re good with the 10 hole,” Kathy Ritvo, trainer of Mucho Macho Man, said Thursday morning. “He shipped well and he’s doing well.”

Baffert also sends out Liaison, third in the Brubaker at Del Mar last time out, and the fragile Take Control, a well-bred (A.P. Indy-Azeri) 6-year-old who has not raced since July 2012 and has competed a mere three times.

Summer Hit won the Brubaker last time out. He figures to be prominent early, lapped onto Paynter.

You Know I Know was a distant third in the Pacific Classic in his last start.

Chief Havoc, the only 3-year-old in the field, was fourth in the San Diego in his only prior stakes try against older horses.

The vastly improved Soi Phet, winner of four straight, tries stakes company for the first time.

Jeranimo has had most of his success on turf, but did win the Strub here in 2010 when the main track was synthetic.