Paynter had never raced at age two. To get ready and be at least slightly prepared for the grueling Belmont Stakes he had only raced four times in his life. Four races to gird him for the 1 1/2 mile “Test of Champions”, as the Belmont Stakes has been called.
One of those four races was a maiden special weight event back in California at Santa Anita. Another of the four was an allowance race at Pimlico on the same Saturday the Preakness was run.
Paynter had two stakes races in his short run-up to the Belmont Stakes. He couldn’t win either of them, finishing second in The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.
His earnings were so small he couldn’t have gotten into the Kentucky Derby field even if trainer Bob Baffert had tried to fit him in there.
Paynter had never raced at Belmont Park.
After four races, the first coming on February 18, the still-learning bay colt was in the Belmont Stakes. He was given some chance to win if your judgment factored in his betting odds. Dullahan and Union Rags were lower prices, but none of the other eight entries were as highly regarded by the bettors as Paynter.
His past performances seemed to indicate he was the only one in the 11-horse field who might like moving to the front and setting the pace. But could a horse with so few races actually get the early lead . . . keep it while maintaining a leisurely pace . . . and then have enough spark left to hold back any stretch runners that might emerge?
Paynter had 46-year-old Mike Smith as his rider. Smith is a Hall of Fame jockey. He’s versatile and something of a tactician.
Smith had gotten Bodemeister the lead in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But in both those earlier Triple Crown jewels, Smith had been passed in the dying moments by I’ll Have Another.
Dullahan and Union Rags had not raced since the Kentucky Derby. Paynter had that allowance win at Pimlico on the same Saturday the Preakness was held.
Baffert wouldn’t reveal his strategy for the exhausting Belmont. His pupil needed a near-perfect trip to be competitive. If he could clear the field before the first turn it would be possible for Smith to slow the pace. A desired slow pace would keep Paynter fresh. Smith and his lightly raced partner might just emerge with enough endurance and energy to keep all the others away.
Paynter has Awesome Again as his sire and Tizso (a granddaughter of Tiznow) as his mother. His pedigree says he has the potential to be something special. Winning the Belmont Stakes is something special.
After the late-running I’ll Have Another was removed from the Belmont, was there any other horse capable of running comfortably behind a moderate pace for 10 furlongs and then chiseling away the pacesetter’s lead and going on to win? That would have been I’ll Have Another’s role. But would any of the others be able to rumble from the back and overtake a from-the-beginning leader?
Baffert must have been a comfortable man when Paynter left the starting gate in full flight . . . quickly moved to the rail . . . and had a clear lead as the first of Belmont’s wide-sweeping turns was negotiated.
The half-mile time was slow and what Baffert would have ordered if room service were available in a Triple Crown race.
Paynter was still poetry in motion when the field reached the head of the stretch. He was running as smoothly as your grandmother’s fudge swirls in your mouth . . . without apparent fizzle or shortened stride to worry the trainer as he watched.
But Union Rags came bobbing along with his ground-eating strides. Union Rags was inside, snug against the rail. It seemed his jockey, John Velazquez, couldn’t squeeze past.
When jockey Smith used his whip to keep Paynter’s mind on the business at hand, the still-green thoroughbred edged slightly away from the safety of the rail. Velazquez and Union Rags slid past . . . getting to the finish line a neck in front.
What races are in Paynter’s future?
Still with only five lifetime races, the Dwyer Stakes in early July is some possibility but not a probable.
The Haskell Stakes in New Jersey is at nine furlongs and has a $1 million purse. The Jersey Derby calls for a 1 1/16th distance but has only a $100,000 purse.
When summertime racing reaches Saratoga there will be the Jim Dandy Stakes at nine furlongs for $500,000 in purse money. And then the Travers Stakes in late August at 10 furlongs has a $1 million purse.
Paynter drew scads of attention for the first time in the Belmont. He could run once or twice more before Baffert finds something interesting for him on Breeders’ Cup Saturday in the late fall.
By that time he will be pounds heavier and better schooled in all things pertaining to thoroughbred racing.