It was this very weekend a year ago when hope was at a pinnacle for Zayat Stables' Paynter.
On July 29, 2012, the son of Awesome Again drew off to a 33/4-length victory in the Grade I Haskell Invitational, a result that had his connections dreaming about what further achievements the bay runner could notch by year's end.
The next handful of months would redefine owner Ahmed Zayat's level of faith, not to mention alter what now constitutes Paynter's most important career triumph.
Right on par with the storybook nature of his tale to this point, Paynter's presence in Saturday's Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar could not be more perfect in its timing.
After a trying week that has seen the Thoroughbred industry hit with the death of top sire Unbridled's Song, the life-threatening injury to 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf winner St Nicholas Abbey, and the ill-fated breakdown of Grade I winner Monzante, Paynter's incredulous journey back from near-death remains a loud, clear drum of inspiration.
Days after Paynter's Haskell win last summer, the Bob Baffert-trainee was sent to a clinic in New Jersey after exhibiting the first signs of what would be a monthslong fight against colitis and early onset of laminitis.
As Zayat and his family watched their colt deteriorate to 900 pounds, wracked with constant diarrhea and fighting against internal pain, he braced himself for the unmistakable sign that goodbyes would be in order. Each time Zayat's heart would get close to that ache, Paynter would deliver what would ultimately be a series of remarkable recoveries that have now led the colt back to his old job of trying to win races at the highest levels.
"If you don't believe in miracles, you certainly have to start believing in one, because seeing Paynter — his attitude — he's a warrior. He's a champion," Zayat said during a teleconference this week. "The way he inspired me, fans, trainer, everybody; the fight he put and his tenacity was unbelievable. Words cannot describe it.
"There were ... maybe three or four times, to be accurate ... that maybe it's just let him, rest in peace, so to speak," Zayat continued. "And we will keep telling each other, 'Let's give him another half-hour or 15 minutes and talk.' And somehow every time, when we are so close, he'll just perk up. He'll do something that will give us an indication that, 'Don't give up on me yet.'"
After lengthy stays at Upstate Equine Medical Center in New York and Fair Hill Therapy Center in Maryland, Paynter returned to Baffert's shedrow last December and proceeded to surprise everyone with how much of his racing form was retained.
After months of holding their breath because of his frailty, Baffert turned Paynter loose in a 7-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park on June 14. The result? What else but a 41/2-length victory — his fourth win in seven career starts, but far from his most celebrated conquest.
"The day he came out of it, I mean, he looked like he wanted to go another round," Zayat said. "You know, let alone a horse not going through what he went through, but just lay off and to run the way he did, and his gallop out was just absolutely insane."
Sentiment and class are part of the reason why Paynter was deemed the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the 11⁄16-mile San Diego Handicap. Fellow entrant Clubhouse Ride won the Grade II Californian Stakes this June and Paynter's Grade I-winning stablemate Liaison took the Grade II Mervyn Leroy Handicap over 11⁄16 miles at Hollywood Park on May 4.
Where simply getting through another day was in question for Paynter 11 months ago, Zayat and Baffert are now realistically discussing what a path to this year's Breeders' Cup Classic would look like for the 4-year-old colt.
To be clear, a start in racing's year-end championships would not be the best case scenario for Paynter. He already achieved that when he refused to allow his demise.
"With that horse I learned one step at a time, but I will be lying if I tell you I'm not dreaming of the Breeders' Cup Classic," Zayat said. "But Paynter is Paynter, and Paynter always gives his best, and I'm sure he would. And I have every confidence in him that he would race to the thrill of his fans."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.