Paynter: the miracle colt who came back from the brink

They call the Belmont Stakes the ‘Test of the Champion’, but 2012 runner-up Paynter will be best remembered for passing an examination in which the stakes were altogether higher.

Mike Smith rides desperately on Paynter as Union Rags makes his move along the rail. (Photo by Al Bello)

Costa Rolfe



Courage in defeat is a beautiful thing in a racehorse. 

A three-year-old colt named Paynter exhibited this quality during the 144th running of the G1 Belmont Stakes, the true ‘Test of the Champion’ that concludes American racing’s fabled Triple Crown. 

Making all in front, a sitting shot at the top of the straight, but somehow, still looking the winner until the final few strides, the son of Awesome Again lost absolutely nothing in eventually bowing to the relentless rails drive of Union Rags. 

The winner was by far the fresher at the conclusion of the searching mile-and-a-half journey, enjoying a relatively economical run covered up in behind the leading bunch and taking advantage of the gap created when a valiant Paynter rolled out in desperate execution of his final effort. Jockey Mike Smith would accept blame for Paynter’s defeat, which he attributed to his surrendering of the rail. 

The Bob Baffert-trained colt’s Grade 1 reward came at his very next start, showing off every bit of his ability to streak to an almost four-length win in the G1 Haskell Invitational at Montmouth Park.

Now one of the most promising three-year-old colts in America, Paynter’s upward trajectory was cruelled just two days later by the sudden onset of illness, a conflation of fever, pneumonia and colitis – and later the frequently successive laminitis – that effectively left the colt fighting for life for an agonising four months.

But what precisely was Paynter’s now greatly diminished frame going through as his New York State equine veterinarians worked so diligently to save him?

Experienced Sydney-based equine veterinarian Michael Robinson explained to Asian Racing Report how laminitis can weaken a horse’s hoof tissue to the point where it resembles “old velcro”. 

“Basically the whole horse, that’s 500 plus kilograms, is suspended within the hoof capsule via laminae – which are effectively a series of interlocking hooks, almost like a soft tissue model of velcro,” said Robinson, who has managed the care of a who’s who of Australian thoroughbred royalty including champions like Makybe Diva, Black Caviar, Super Impose and Better Loosen Up. 

“When these hooks get stretched, just like old velcro they lose their holding capacity. 

“That’s when the weight of the horse – combined with the now unopposed pull of the flexor-tendons at the back of the leg – cause the pedal bone in the hoof to rotate downwards and through the sole, or, if it’s more extensive, to sink, so the whole pedal bone starts to descend within the hoof capsule.”


Paynter and Union Rags fight out the Belmont Stakes. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

But what brings on this catastrophic cascade in the first place? The connection between a bout of colitis and subsequent laminitis is a common one in the equine world, and has its genesis amidst the trillions of bacteria that occupy a horse’s gut. 

“Colitis is generally caused by the overgrowth of bacteria usually harboured in the large colon of a horse,” said Robinson. 

“There are trillions of bacteria that reside there that live in harmonious populations. But if something disturbs that balance – whether it be antibiotics therapy or a dietary change – specific sub-populations of that bacteria can multiply, causing inflammation to the gut wall through the release of endotoxins.

“The endotoxins can then find their way into the bloodstream where they can cause profound cardiovascular issues that also impact peripheral blood flow, which affects small veins and arteries in the periphery of the animal: areas like gums, skin and feet become constricted. Without blood flow to the feet, the tissue becomes compromised and laminitis may develop.”

As Paynter’s fierce will to win ceded to the basic will to live, the practices put in place by Paynter’s team of vets could not have been more instrumental in saving the horse’s life. The preventative measures taken by lead vet Dr Laura Javiscas – including the application of cryotherapy to Paynter’s stricken legs – stopped the acute laminitis from becoming chronic. 

As Robinson explains, it is this prevention phase – rather than necessarily the treatment phase – that has aided in achieving better recovery rates for horses with laminitis in recent years. 

“Back in the mid 80s and early 90s, we had a lot of horses admitted with colitis, and a huge proportion of them would go on to develop laminitis as a consequence of their primary illness. 

“But now, any horse believed to be at risk of laminitis will undergo intensive cryotherapy of their feet, and support will be provided for the compromised laminae by the application of orthotics or special shoes and pads, or stabling in a sand box, which provides a more uniform cushioning and support to the sole of the foot.” 

Information on Paynter’s condition was consistently relayed by devoted owner Ahmed Zayat, who would later enjoy Triple Crown glory with his colt American Pharoah in 2015. Zayat kept the public updated on social media as Paynter’s health continued to fluctuate. 

Jockey Victor Espinoza, owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert celebrate American Pharoah's historic Triple Crown win. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“I told Laura (Javiscas), the number one priority has to be Paynter’s comfort level,” said Zayat. 

“If he suffered uncontrollable pain, we had to respect that. There were a couple of occasions we felt we were close to ending it. But we would give him a couple more hours, and he would perk up, look happy.”

Paynter’s laminitis was acute but never progressed to the chronic stage, with the inflammation subsiding after two to three days and the structure of the hooves maintained, thanks to the preventative measures.

Zayat took to Twitter to announce news of the progress, and that his horse was walking soundly. 


In Robinson’s experience, Paynter remains in an exclusive club when it comes to recovery. 

“Horses coming back from laminitis in three of four feet is rare, but a lot depends on how much damage was sustained,” he said. 

“It depends on the degree of compromise and ultimately the degree of rotation. 

“If you can get these horses early enough, before they actually develop any physical movement of their pedal bone within the hoof capsule whether that be rotation or sinking, then you have a good chance that the horse will come back to normal function.”

But having seen off the challenge of laminitis, it was colitis that was now, again, the biggest threat to Paynter. 

“Now that our warrior has beaten this sick disease of laminitis, if he can only beat his colitis and get his GI tract back to normal,” wrote Zayat. 

“Healing will take some time but we are heading in the right direction.”

After several ultrasounds it was decided that surgery was the best option to save the now greatly emaciated colt, with Dr. Louise Southwood removing a 15-inch growth from the horse’s intestine approximately three months after he first fell ill. 

And slowly, Paynter started to recover. Weight started to return to his once powerful frame. Tentative grazing sessions became longer and longer. And, incredibly, after all the horse had been through, Paynter left the care of Faith Hill Therapy Centre a ‘normal’ horse.

So rehabilitated, in fact, that he was ready to once again do what he did best: race. 

“He’s the toughest horse I’ve ever seen. He has the heart of a champion,” trainer Baffert would say later. 

Paynter was put back into work, and, very slowly, inched towards race fitness and a return to the track. He would make his extraordinary return almost 12 months since his last run in a 1400-metre allowance race at Hollywood Park. 

As the ‘#PowerUpPaynter’ hashtag deployed by fans around the United States was amplified to trend fifth worldwide, Paynter did the unthinkable. 

“He is just an incredible, phenomenal horse. I can’t believe he is back,” said Baffert after the race. 

“He went from being 99-1 to survive to 1-9 to win.”

Although he wouldn’t win again, Paynter continued to race with distinction, finishing second in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes – the race named after his father – and competing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

Retired to stand at WinStar Farm in 2014, Paynter went on to sire Horse of the Year and five-time Group 1 winner Knicks Go. 

Knicks Go and Joel Rosario celebrate victory at Del Mar. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

For Robinson, Paynter’s story stands out as one of supreme resilience. 

“It is extremely rare for a horse to achieve peak performance again on the track after an acute episode of laminitis,” he said. 

Union Rags may have bested him in the ‘Test of the Champion’ that day at Belmont, but it was what transpired next that  confirmed Paynter’s champion qualities. 




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing