A year ago, Paynter was fighting for his life against colitis and laminitis, with survival a long shot. On Saturday, he will run in Saratoga's Grade I Woodward Stakes, a dress rehearsal for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"If you don't believe in miracles, you certainly have to start," his owner, Ahmed Zayat, said. "He has an incredible heart. This is the spirit of Paynter."
Racing fans voted Paynter's inspiring recovery the 2012 Moment of the Year. There were days when Zayat feared his colt wouldn't see another one.
"It actually hurts me to think about it," he said. "I told his doctor, 'You need to be very much in tune with how much pain this horse can or cannot take.' I believe quality of life means a lot. There were three or four times we thought maybe just let him rest in peace. But every time we were close to pulling the plug, he gave us every indication 'Not yet. Don't give up on me.' "
Zayat will always be thankful he didn't. Hardly anyone expected Paynter to return to trainer Bob Baffert in December, and six months later he dominated his comeback at Hollywood Park. He was second July 27 in a stakes at Del Mar, setting up last year's Haskell winner and Belmont Stakes runner-up for the $750,000, 11/8-mile Woodward.
Even without Whitney winner Cross Traffic, who will await the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and 2012 Classic champion Fort Larned (hind end strain), the field of six is outstanding. Ron the Greek (Santa Anita Handicap, Stephen Foster), Flat Out (two Gold Cups) and Alpha (Travers) have Grade I wins. Only Whitney runner-up Successful Dan and Mucho Macho Man (second, Classic) lack one, and between them they've earned more than $3.3 million.
The sentimental favorite also is the morning-line favorite. Without Fort Larned, Paynter (2-1) could control the pace, as he did in the Belmont last year.
"He's just an amazing horse," Baffert said. "He keeps getting stronger and better. Looking at him, you would never know what he went through, and now he's in probably the greatest race of the summer."