Bouncing back from a heart-breaking loss in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) last month, Paynter romped to victory in the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr. I) July 29 at Monmouth Park and handed trainer Bob Baffert his sixth win in the prestigious race (VIDEO).
Ridden for the first time by Rafael Bejarano, even-money choice Paynter provided a break-out performance with an impressive 3 3/4-length victory in the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds before a crowd of 35,253.
Baffert, with more victories in the 45-year-old Haskell than any other trainer, has won with his past six starters in the race. He became the first to win it three years in a row, following Lookin At Lucky in 2010 and Coil last year.
"When you win they always feel like the first one. They’re all exciting and they never get old," said Baffert, who did not make the trip to New Jersey and turned over training duties to assistant Jim Barnes.
"When he turned for home, he just pinned his ears and took off. Jimmy and I have always been high on him. It was nice to finally get a big win for (Ahmed) Zayat and with Rafael Bejarano."
Barnes said Paynter will head back to California and begin training for the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 25.
Paynter, after a hesitant start, pushed second choice Gemologist into the far turn before taking over. Paynter was in control in the stretch as Nonios rallied to attempt to make a race of it. But Paynter, under some right-handed urging from Bejarano, drew off impressively from mid-stretch.
Zayat Stables owns Paynter, a son of Awesome Again out of the Cee's Tizzy mare Tizso. Diamond A Racing bred the bay colt, a $325,000 Keeneland yearling in September 2010, in Kentucky.
Nonios was second with Stealcase running on for third. The final time was 1:48.87 on a fast track.
Paynter, making his sixth lifetime start, collected his first graded stakes win and didn't need the lead to accomplish it. The speedy colt nearly stole the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes June 9 but could not withstand the late charge of Union Rags , losing in the final couple of strides by a neck.
He recovered well, however, and had rattled off four consecutive bullet workouts since July 4.
"He worked really well getting ready to run," Baffert said. "He came here and showed the world that he is a serious horse."
He began his career in February, winning over maiden allowance foes at first asking by 4 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita Park. Baffert showed his confidence in the colt from the start, putting him in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) for his next race. After bobbling at the start, Paynter finished fourth, 3 3/4 lengths behind I'll Have Another.
Paynter shipped to Churchill Downs for his next start, finishing second in the The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (gr. III) on a sloppy track April 28. In his final start prior to the Belmont Stakes, Paynter humbled an allowance field at Pimlico Race Course on the Preakness undercard.
In the Haskell, Gemologist broke sharply for Javier Castellano to take the early lead as Paynter was a bit slow away from the gate. Paynter was hustled into second behind Gemologist while racing three wide and those two led the small field of six through honest quarter-mile fractions of :23.88, :48.01, and 1:11.37.
Castellano was already asking Gemologist for more early on the final turn as Paynter turned up the heat. But Gemologist, making his first start since the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 5, didn't have much of an answer. Paynter would take control midway on the turn and only Nonios, ridden by Corey Nakatani, had any chance of catching him.
Nonios passed Gemologist on the outside at the quarter pole and chased Paynter home. But Paynter, leading comfortably after being roused in upper stretch, showed no signs of slowing down. Bejarano gave him a vigorous hand ride for the final sixteenth of a mile.
“I knew I could come from off the pace if I wanted to," Bejarano said. "I pulled him to the outside and that was that. He ran so easy. I knew Gemologist was the horse to beat, but if he wanted to go to the lead, that was fine.
"Gemologist broke a bit better than us so I just sat off him. At the quarter mile pole, my horse blew by him and that was that."
The runner-up was 4 1/2 lengths in front of Stealcase, rallying from last for Shaun Bridgmohan. Handsome Mike , Dullahan, and Gemologist trailed.
Nonios, making his first start on a dirt track, was coming off a second in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) over Cushion Track at Betfair Hollywood Park July 4 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
The $600,000 winning purse for the Haskell pushed Paynter's career earnings to $952,224.
Paynter carried 118 pounds and paid $4, $2.80, $2.40. He keyed a $21.40 exacta. Nonios, like the winner based in Southern California, returned $5.20 and $3.80. Stealcase, the longest shot in the field at 28-1, paid $5 to show.
In addition to the past three winners, Baffert also captured the Haskell in 2001 with Point Given , in 2002 with War Emblem, and in 2005 with Roman Ruler.