08/29/2013 5:20PM

Saratoga: Woodward, drained of some speed, may see Paynter up front early

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Barbara D. Livingston
Paynter does not need the lead to win, but may find himself in front against five opponents in the Grade 1 Woodward.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.  - Once upon a time, Saturday's Grade  1, $750,000 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga was going to be a spectacular race with eight horses, plenty of speed, and some quality closers.

What remains - after the defections of Cross Traffic on Wednesday and Fort Larned on Thursday - is a good race with six starters, and a whole new pace dynamic, one that could compromise the closers.

Cross Traffic, the Whitney Invitational winner, was not entered, his connections opting to wait for the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 28.

On Thursday, trainer Ian Wilkes said he was going to scratch Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned from the Woodward, owing to a strain in the 5-year-old's gluteal area.

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"That's a huge scratch," said Bob Baffert, the trainer of potential Woodward favorite Paynter. "On his day, he's one of the best horses in the country. I cringed when I heard that, because I don't want it to happen to me."

The defection of Fort Larned could leave Paynter as the primary speed horse in the Woodward, which tops a 12-race card that also includes the Grade 1 Forego and the Grade 2 Ballston Spa. The Forego and Woodward are the first two legs of a pick four wager with a guaranteed pool of $500,000. All three stakes will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network from 4-6 p.m. Eastern.

At 3, Paynter led for every step of the Belmont Stakes except the last when he got caught by Union Rags. Paynter pressed the pace in the Haskell Invitational, drawing off to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

After battling a life-threatening illness, Paynter came back to win a seven-furlong allowance race at Betfair Hollywood Park in June on the front end before finishing second in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, run at 1 1/16 miles over Polytrack.

The Woodward makes Paynter's return to dirt and 1 1/8 miles. Baffert said he believes both will favor Paynter. As for how the horse will be ridden, Baffert said he will leave it up to jockey Rafael Bejarano.

[SARATOGA 2013: Complete meet coverage, exclusive DRF videos]

"The whole key is the break. He can do whatever you want," Baffert said. "He can be on the lead or if he misses the break he can sit and he can track horses."

Mucho Macho Man, runner-up in last year's Woodward, is the other potential pace player. He pressed the pace winning the Sunshine Millions Classic and Grade 2 Suburban last year. He also pressed Fort Larned when finishing second to that rival in last November's Breeders' Cup Classic
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Mucho Macho Man breaks from post 6, one slot to the outside of Paynter. Trainer Kathy Ritvo said she wouldn't mind seeing Mucho Macho Man on the lead, but would leave the riding tactics up to Edgar Prado.

"If he breaks good and Edgar puts him in the right position we wouldn't have a problem with that," she said.

Successful Dan rallied from 12 lengths back to finish second, three-quarters of a length behind Cross Traffic in the Whitney. Trainer Charles LoPresti doesn't feel his 7-year-old gelding has to be that far back, something he will impart to jockey Julien Leparoux prior to the race.

"I'd like to see him third or fourth, maybe four or five lengths off of it," LoPresti said.
Successful Dan is doing so well that LoPresti brought him back to the track Thursday morning for a gallop, one day after he breezed three furlongs over the main track.

"He drug him around there," LoPresti said. "That little breeze he did yesterday didn't take anything out of him. It put a little bit of wind in him."

Trainer Bill Mott won the Woodward last year with To Honor and Serve. Saturday, he sends out Ron the Greek and Flat Out.

As a confirmed stretch runner, Ron the Greek may be the most adversely affected by the absences of Cross Traffic and Fort Larned. Flat Out lay close to the pace when he won the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont on July 6 and will be fresh having not raced in nearly two months.

"Ron is generally pretty one dimensional, lays back and makes a run," Mott said. "Any time you have a lack of pace it's going to make a difference."

Mott said he doesn't believe the potential lack of pace will affect Flat Out, who did lay second when winning the Grade 2 Suburban on July 6.

"He's been real sharp here recently," he said.

Alpha seeks his first win since last year's Travers. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is adding blinkers to Alpha's equipment, noting that he ran well with him in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai in March.

"We're not thinking about going to the lead," McLaughlin said. "Because that spot will be occupied."

The question now is, by whom?