Profile in Courage

How can an owner who finishes second in all three Triple Crown races, two of them in photos; loses the Pimlico Special by a nose; and loses his three best horses to injury claim to have had his greatest year ever?

Ahmed Zayat hasn’t come right out and made such a claim, but the truth is, 2012 has indeed been his best year as an owner, because he has had the rare privilege of witnessing and experiencing first hand the heart and courage of a champion and being right there all the way as his horse fought his greatest battle. Remarkably, it is a battle he currently is winning.

Forget the heartbreaking defeats in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and the promising careers cut short. The Zayat family will always remember 2012 as the year of Paynter. And whenever they recall the indomitable fighting spirit displayed by their horse and his will to live, it will bring a smile to their faces that will more than make up for the disappointments on the track.

The jubilation of winning the Haskell, with Ahmed’s son Justin there to accept the trophy, was a special moment for sure. But there is no greater prize bestowed upon a Thoroughbred owner and no greater feeling to warm the soul than the pride and admiration the Zayats feel right now for Paynter.

They have utilized the Twitter world to provide constant updates on the horse to his legion of fans that continues to grow daily, in much the same manner as Barbaro, whose struggle gained national attention in 2006. This communication has enabled the Zayat family and Paynter’s fans to jointly feel the joy and heartache that has accompanied the horse’s battles with colitis, laminitis, an abscess, and whatever other maladies he has had to endure.

Even Paynter’s trainer, Bob Baffert, admitted at one point, “I can’t believe this horse is still alive.”

He added, “They should give a special Eclipse Award to that veterinarian (Dr. Laura Javsicas, who devoted so much of her time to Paynter and helped him through all his ordeals).

When the time came to start thinking about the humane thing to do, Zayat tweeted, “We need to be compassionate and merciful and treat our star with the respect and love that he deserves while giving him the best chance in fighting for his life.”

The word Thoroughbred has been used in many ways since the name entered the vernacular in 1701. It has become associated not only with royal breeding and athleticism, but courage and fortitude, and a competitive spirit. The  Thoroughbred in  the true sense of the word is a fighter by nature and that fight is not restricted to the racetrack. It can manifest itself anywhere. Paynter could have won the Triple Crown and not embody the spirit of the Thoroughbred any more than he did standing in a stall at Upstate Equine Medical Center in New York or at New Bolton Medical Center in Pennsylvania.

There will be no trophies for Paynter at this year’s Eclipse Awards dinner, but  trophies and what they represent can take on many forms and have just as proud a place in the heart as they do on the mantle.

To those who have marveled at his resolve and invested so much emotion following his plight, Paynter in his own way is the 2012 Horse of the Year.

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