Power Up Paynter

Once upon a time there were two horses named MC’s Dream and Bradleberry. Both were potential stars, showing great promise from the time they were mere tots. You will find no record of either horse, but be assured they are here as big as life, with a stranglehold on the 3-year-old division.

MC’s Dream and Bradleberry have morphed into Paynter and Bodemeister, with their new names holding great significance to their trainer Bob Baffert, who, thanks to owner Ahmed Zayat, gets to train one horse named after his son, Bode, and another after the contractor who built the house in which Bode will grow up.

What is remarkable about this story is that when the year began, no one outside of Baffert’s barn and the Zayat household had heard of MC’s Dream or Bradleberry or Paynter or Bodemeister or whatever their names were at the time.

On Feb. 11, Bodemeister burst on the scene with a vengeance, not only demolishing a field of maidens, but surprising even Baffert and Zayat with his 9 1/4-length romp in a blazing 1:34 2/5 for the mile. Behind him was another highly touted Baffert colt named Stirred Up, who actually went off as the favorite.

Several days later, Zayat, still surprised, but delighted over Bodemeister’s brilliant performance, alerted yours truly that he had a better one in the barn named MC’s Dream. Yeah, sure, we’ve heard that one before. There’s always a better one in the barn. Not even a week had passed when MC’s Dream, now Paynter, showed up in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race and blew his opponents away by 4 1/2 lengths in a blistering 1:02.98. So highly touted was he that he was sent off as the 2-5 favorite. Maybe he did have a better one in the barn.

It was obvious Zayat had two brilliant colts on his hands, but there was no way either one could be ready for the Kentucky Derby or likely any of the other Triple Crown races. Here it was now a couple of weeks into March and neither colt had done anything but break their maidens, with Paynter having only that one 5 1/2-furlong race.

But what most people didn’t realize was just how special and extraordinary both these colts were. Everyone who had ever been around them surely knew.

Bloodstock agent David Ingordo knew when he bought them for Zayat at the Keeneland September yearling sale, paying $325,000 for Paynter and $260,000 for Bodemeister.

Although he loved Bodemeister, Paynter was the first horse on his short list for Zayat.

“He was a very good sized, strong colt for an Awesome Again and he had the physical look of a two-turn, dirt horse, with the pedigree to go with it,” Ingordo said. “And he was out of a full-sister to Tiznow. I remember how strong he was and how much I liked his shoulder, head, and neck. I was pretty pumped up when we were able to buy him.”

Not a bad recommendation from the man who picked out Zenyatta and scores of other top-class horses.

After purchasing both colts, Zayat sent them and his other young horses to J.B. McKathan in Florida. McKathan has been breaking and training good horses since he had Silver Charm and other major stars for Baffert.

McKathan thought so highly of Paynter he took his picture to send to Zayat's son Justin and used it as his screen saver on his phone. He hasn’t changed it since.

“Paynter was more of a big strapping colt than Bodemeister,” he recalled. “He was just a really gorgeous classy colt. When you get to be around good horses you know one when you see him. He never had a bad day. He was really solid and sound and just a great horse to be around; really classy.

“He was fast, but he never broke the stopwatch or anything like that. When you have these really talented horses, we’re just trying to slow them down the whole time. They’ll work fast sometimes, but not because we want them to. We just want to keep them under control and let them ease on down there. He was never rank and wanting to run off. He had a really good mind and that always helps.”

McKathan never worked Paynter and Bodemeister together. The last thing you want to do with young talented horses is have two express trains going full throttle together.

McKathan provided ample preparation for one’s first close-up encounter with Paynter.

“Wait until you see him; he is gorgeous,” he said. “He is a really really good-looking dude. You stand next to him and you’re going to be impressed. Believe me when I say a horse is good looking he is good looking.”

Although you have high-profile names, such as Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat, closely associated with the Paynter – Bodemeister story, the central figure could very well be Justin, Zayat’s oldest son who is 20 years old and attends New York University (NYU), and has been deeply involved in the Zayat Thoroughbred operation since he was 13 when his father started the stable.

Each year, Zayat has his main trainers come to the farm to look at the babies and choose which ones they’d like to train. The Zayat team then decides which horses to send to which trainers. Last year, Baffert was unable to go and asked Justin to choose the horses for him. He chose Paynter and Bodemeister.

“My dad loves Awesome Again and I know Bob loves him,” Justin said. “Whenever we get an Awesome Again my first thought is to give him to Bob. Paynter’s dam  (Tizso, by Cee’s Tizzy) is a full-sister to Tiznow and his pedigree screams classic distance. I knew he was Bob’s horse from day one. I saw him on the farm and I wanted to know if he was progressing, so I asked J.B. to send me a picture of him every few weeks. And he just kept looking better and better. I felt this was a Bob Baffert horse and I went with my gut."

As for Bodemeister, Justin said, "I know Bob likes a certain type of horse, with classic pedigrees, and Bodemeister is by Empire Maker, and Bob trainer Pioneerof the Nile for us and he's by Empire Maker. It was a pretty easy decision for me.

“When we allocate our horses, before we send them to their respective trainers we have a contest. We each pick the ones we think are going to be the stars, the allowance horses, and the less talented ones. We have this competition every year. We try to give each trainer at least one “A” colt and one “A” filly, and one colt we feel can get them to the Derby. You could say Bob got lucky last year.”

The year before, they gave Steve Asmussen Nehro, the year before that they gave Pletcher Eskendereya, and the year before that they gave Bill Mott Pioneerof the Nile, who they eventually transferred to Baffert. In 2008, they gave Mott Z Humor and Asmussen Z Fortune, both of whom were major players on the Derby trail.

Nehro and Pioneerof the Nile both finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Eskendereya, who would have been a prohibitive favorite in the Run for the Roses, was injured and retired shortly before the race.

Although the Zayats had to be thrilled to be such a major force on the Derby scene, those were tough breaks. But Zayat and Justin remained upbeat and optimistic, and kept persevering, knowing their time would come to hold up the Derby trophy or the Woodlawn Vase or the Belmont Stakes trophy.

But never could they have imagined what was in store with Paynter and Bodemeister in 2012. The Zayats would be thrilled, teased, and in the end frustrated and disappointed by a series of gut-wrenching defeats in all three Triple Crown races.

Bodemeister, despite his inexperience looked like the horse that could defy history and become the first horse to win the Derby without having started at 2 since Apollo in 1882.

Following a gutsy second to grade I winner Creative Cause in the San Felipe, the son of Empire Maker romped by 9 1/2 lengths in the Arkansas Derby for his third consecutive triple-digit Beyer speed figure. All of a sudden, the Zayats had one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, with Paynter, Baffert and Zayat did something so bold and so completely out of character, it was thought by many that they were rushing the colt and jeopardizing his career. They had decided to go straight from the 5 1/2-furlong maiden race to the Santa Anita Derby. Despite bobbling at the start and dropping back to sixth, Paynter still finished fourth, beaten only 3 ¾ lengths by I’ll Have Another. Baffert actually thought he should have won with a better trip.

A week before the Derby, Paynter was back in the Derby Trial Stakes, but the track came up a sloppy mess and he wound up going head and head with two other horses through a brutal half in :45 1/5. He put those two horse away, but was caught in the final furlong by Hierro, the mile run in a snappy 1:35 1/5.

A week later, Bodemeister wound up a slight favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but cooked himself with ridiculous fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 4/5. Every horse near him cracked, but he amazingly kept going, opening up a three-length lead at the eighth pole and seemingly home free.

The Baffert and Zayat families watched on the big screen in the paddock, but their jubilation quickly turned to heartbreak, as I’ll Have Another came charging late to beat Bode by 1 1/2 lengths. A good deal of the talk after the race was about the remarkable race Bodemeister ran in defeat. But the bottom line is that the Zayats had suffered their third second-place finish in the Derby in four years.

Zayat is an emotional person who wears his heart on his sleeve, but after seeing the anguish on the face of Justin and the tears shed by Bode Baffert, he felt he had to keep his own emotions in check. The feelings of disappointment and frustration he kept contained soon were replaced by a feeling of pride in his horse and what he accomplished. And more importantly, the Preakness was in two weeks and provided a new beginning.

It was decided to bring both Bodemeister and Paynter to Pimlico, with Paynter running in a 1 1/16-mile allowance raceon Preakness to get him back on the winning track and give Zayat an idea just how the track was playing.

If the Zayats thought the Derby defeat was agonizing, they had to be devastated in the Preakness watching Bodemeister again set all the pace and getting nailed right on the wire by I’ll Have Another.

Bodemeister had done enough and it was time to turn their attention to Paynter for the Belmont Stakes. Optimism ran high, despite Paynter having had only four lifetime starts and having to stretch out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles.

The morning of the Belmont, Zayat and his family and several friends gathered in their mobile home, which they rent and park on the backstretch overnight in order to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Following their morning prayers, they indulged in a feast of bagels and lox and whitefish and other culinary delights, including a cake inscribed with the words, “Power Up Paynter,” before preparing to head to the races. When TVG showed the stretch runs of the Derby and Preakness, Zayat let out one word: “Torture!”

Little did he know he would be in for more torture.

Earlier on the Belmont card, Justin Phillip was nailed in the final stride in the True North Stakes.

In the Belmont, once again, it was Zayat’s silks on the lead every step of the way. Paynter turned back the challenge of Atigun at the head of the stretch and set sail for home, but Mike Smith came off the rail in the furlong allowing Union Rags to sneak through and win by a neck.

The three Triple Crown races comprise a total of approximately 3.8 miles. Zayat’s two horses led for all but about 10 feet of those 3.8 miles and didn’t win any of the three races. But Zayat never complained and complimented the winners and expressed his pride in his own horses for their toughness and courage.

“Racing owes me nothing,” Zayat said. “I love this sport and each race is a new beginning.”

His new beginning was now the Haskell Invitational, which would kick off racing’s second season.

Bodemeister was ticketed to return in Monmouth’s premier event, but a fever kept him out of the race, and it was quickly decided to substitute Paynter. Baffert felt he was unable to attend, and Zayat, who was spending the summer in Del Mar, also couldn’t attend because his youngest daughter, Emma, had a temperature of 102, and as Zayat says, “Family always comes first.”

So it was up to Justin to represent the family and hopefully accept the trophy following the race. That would be the fulfillment of a dream, as Justin was born in Teaneck, N.J., which is located close to Hackensack, where Zayat has his office. To not only attend his first big victory in person, but represent the entire family would be a moment he would treasure for the rest of his life.

It took less than a minute and 49 seconds for his dream to become a reality, as Paynter finally showed the greatness everyone saw in him.

Most everyone expected him to go to the lead, but it was Gemologist who rushed to the front after Paynter broke a bit slowly. Paynter, headstrong early, finally settled in second through a quarter in :23 4/5 and a half in :48 flat. He engaged Gemologist on the far turn through three-quarters in 1:11 1/5 and it was apparent that Paynter was in total control. Gemologist was already under heavy pressure and was hit once left-handed with the whip by Javier Castellano, while Rafael Bejarano, who had replaced Mike Smith, was still motionless on Paynter.

Turning for home, Gemologist was done, but Nonios, who had been tracking the pace from the inside, swung to the outside and seemed ready to pounce on Paynter. But when Bejarano set him down, Paynter found another gear and spurted clear to win going away by 3 ¾ lengths in a solid 1:48 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.

Justin immediately received a call from his father. “He was the happiest guy in the world,” he said. “He was yelling and screaming, ‘Oh My God , Oh my God.’ This horse has run so hard in all his races, and we gave him such a grueling campaign; from a maiden to the Santa Anita Derby. Finally, this was the breakout race we’d been hoping for. He’s always kind of lived in Bode’s shadow, but he made his mark today. The Belmont was such a tough loss after all we asked of him. Turning for home when Nonios made that run at him, I was going, ‘Please don’t do this to me again.’”

Said Zayat: “You could hear me screaming from California to New Jersey. Never in my life have I screamed that much. This was so gratifying and validated all of Bob’s hype. I’ve never seen him so confident before. I would have loved to be there, but I couldn’t leave my daughter.”

If Zayat could have seen Justin leading in Paynter with his sister Ashley and sitting at the winner’s podium answering questions from the media he would have burst with pride.

“This has been a dream my whole life,” Justin said. “I’ve been waiting to be at a big win in person. Whenever we’ve won I’ve never been there. I always had to watch it on TV. To finally be there in person after the whole Triple Crown and running second, second, and second, and then finally breaking through and to do it in New Jersey, there’s nothing better.”

So begins the second season for the Zayat family. From the early days of 2012 watching Paynter and Bodemeister develop into bonafide stars, through a Triple Crown ordeal that would have broken most owners, and finally a major victory in their home state, the Zayats have experienced racing’s gamut of emotions. As strong as they have always been as a family, the laughter, the thrills, and the tears they have experienced this year have bonded them even further. And they owe it all to the speed, class, and courage of two special 3-year-old colts. That is the true magic of horse racing.

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