Paynter became the Woodward favorite by virtue of Fort Larned’s scratch.
He became a fan favorite simply by surviving.
The 4-year-old son of Awesome Again, brought back from the brink of death several times by a variety of treatments and his own strong will, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the $750,000 Grade I centerpiece of today’s card at Saratoga Race Course.
He nearly won the Belmont Stakes last year, then did win the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, but soon after was at the Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville, where he was diagnosed with colitis.
Trainer Bob Baffert was told three times last summer that Paynter, owned by Zayat Stables, was on the verge of being put down.
Somehow, he continued to battle for his life, and now is on the verge of giving himself a firm foothold in the older handicap division.
“We’re blessed and thank God every day just to see him at the barn,” said Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, who has been overseeing Paynter’s morning gallops since the horse arrived from California on Wednesday.
The Woodward will be shown live during a broadcast from 4-6 p.m. on NBCSN.
Fort Larned, the Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner last year, was declared from the race on Thursday with a strained hind muscle.
Successful Dan originally was the 5-2 morning-line favorite, but Paynter was elevated from 3-1 to 2-1 with Fort Larned out of the picture.
Paynter finally got back on the track to race in June, winning an allowance at Hollywood Park by 4 1⁄2 lengths, and followed that with a second to Kettle Corn in the Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on July 27.
“I didn’t want to run him in the Pacific Classic,” said Baffert, who also trained Game On Dude, a leading candidate for Horse of the Year after his dominating win in the Pacific Classic. “The Woodward is a great race, pointing to the Breeders’ Cup. We’re excited about running him. It’s a tough field, but he’s tough.”
Paynter showed that by refusing to succumb to his life-threatening ailments, while undergoing an aggressive treatment plan that included removing part of his intestine.
He came down with a fever shortly after the Haskell win and was hospitalized, then was sent back to Belmont Park to prepare for the Travers.
Paynter made it north, but not to Saratoga.
When the fever recurred, accompanied by diarrhea, he was sent to the Upstate Equine Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with colitis, later compounded by laminitis in three hooves.
Paynter became the subject of a groundswell of support from the fans, especially on Twitter.
That carried over to his comeback races in California, and it’s expected that he’ll be greeted warmly at Saratoga today.
“Bob told me they had quite a turnout, which is good,” Barnes said. “Racing needs something to look forward to. I hope they do turn out.
“We’re super-good today. Thank God we’re back at the level we were at last year, because a lot of times that doesn’t happen.”
Paynter will face five in the Woodward, including two from the Whitney — Successful Dan and Mucho Macho Man; two from Bill Mott’s barn — Ron the Greek and Flat Out; and long shot Alpha, who has been out of the money in six starts since a dead-heat with Golden Ticket in last year’s Travers.
With Fort Larned out and Whitney winner Cross Traffic skipping the Woodward, it leaves Paynter as the likely pacesetter.
Many of the Woodward runners were counting on a faster pace than was posted in the Whitney, but might not get it now.
“I suppose you always have to worry about that,” Mott said. “It looked like a race that was full of speed, but I guess it’s kind of a tradeoff. What would you rather have, Cross Traffic and Fort Larned in there, or less speed?
“I think it’s a good bunch, but obviously, that takes some of the flair out of it. They’re certainly two of the top five handicapping horses in the country.”
Trainer Charlie LoPresti continues to be puzzled by the incident before the Whitney — which he couldn’t see from the stands — in which Successful Dan essentially tripped himself and fell on his side during the post parade just before coming onto the track.
He does know that he had his horse sharp going into the Whitney, and comes into the Woodward the same way.
“From what I understand, something spooked him, and he ran backward and he lost his balance and over he went,” LoPresti said. “He ran a great race in spite of that. I’ve got to think that maybe it took a little bit out of him when he hit the ground as hard as he did.
“So maybe he wasn’t into the first part of the race, it took him awhile to get his feet underneath him, but he made up a lot of ground and he ran really hard. I’m kind of hoping that maybe he’s going to be a little closer this time and a little sharper.”
Flat Out skipped the Whitney to give his chronic foot problems more time to heal up, while his stablemate finished fourth behind Cross Traffic, Successful Dan and Mucho Macho Man.
“Ron looked like he made a big run into a slow pace, and then sort of flattened out at the eighth pole,” Mott said. “I was a little surprised that he didn’t keep going. At the three-eighths pole, he wasn’t going to get any part of it, and then he started a big run.
“Approaching the eighth pole, it looked like he was going to win the whole thing. Then all of a sudden he flattened out a little bit.”
Mucho Macho Man finished ahead of Fort Larned in the Whitney after losing to him by a half-length in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
His 2013 campaign was slow to develop because of a bacterial infection, so owner Dean Reeves believes he needed a few races to regain his 2012 form.
“This will be his third race back, and we’re looking for him to improve on that race in the Whitney, and hopefully it’ll be good enough to get that group of horses,” Reeves said.
Alpha was sixth in the Whitney and fourth in the Suburban after taking a shot at the Godolphin Mile in Dubai, where he was fifth.
“”He likes it here at Saratoga,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “We thought we’d give him one more shot against these horses.”