Knicks Go and the Courage of Paynter

We all marvel at the brilliance of Knicks Go and his recent victory in the Whitney, but few have talked about his sire Paynter, whose courage captured the hearts of a nation back in 2012. This is his story.~ Steve Haskin

Knicks Go and the Courage of Paynter

By Steve Haskin


There have been several Secretariat Vox Populi Award winners who also were named Horse of the Year. But this year we could have the first ever Vox Populi Award winner sire a Horse of the Year. That became a distinct possibility when Knicks Go’s brilliant victory in last week’s Whitney Stakes vaulted him to the top of the list of contenders for racing’s greatest honor.

The son of 2012 Vox Populi winner Paynter has displayed rare two-turn speed, demolishing his foes by simply outrunning everyone from the start and never showing any signs of tiring. The one trait he has not exhibited is the ability to withstand pressure and turn back challenges in the stretch. And that is only because he has never been challenged. If the occasion ever does arise when he is looked in the eye, it is reassuring to know that he has the blood of Paynter coursing through his veins.

Those who followed racing in 2012 are well aware of the courage of Paynter and his battle with several life-threatening ailments, including the dreaded disease laminitis that has claimed the lives of so many horses, including Secretariat, whose owner Penny Chenery founded the Vox Populi Award in 2010. More about those near-death battles later.

To tell the complete story of Paynter let’s go back to the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale where bloodstock agent David Ingordo first became enamored with a son of Awesome Again, out of Tiznow’s full-sister Tizso and ranked him No. 1 on his short list for owner Ahmed Zayat before purchasing him for $325,000.

“Paynter 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.”

Zayat then sent the colt and his other young horses to J.B. McKathan in Florida. McKathan had been breaking and training good horses since he had Silver Charm and other major stars for trainer Bob Baffert.

McKathan, who passed away in 2019, 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.

“Paynter was a big strapping colt,” McKathan 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.”

Zayat named the colt MC’s Dream and named another colt Ingordo purchased for him at Keeneland Bradleberry. He eventually changed Bradleberry to Bodemeister in honor of his trainer Bob Baffert’s son Bode and MC’s Dream to Paynter after the contractor who built Baffert’s new house. Amazingly, both would become two the top 3-year-olds in the country.

On Feb. 11, 2012, 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.

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. That seemed hard to believe considering the sheer magnitude of Bodemeister’s victory. Not even a week had passed when MC’s Dream, now named Paynter, showed up in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race and blew his opponents away by 4 1/2 lengths in a swift 1:02 4/5 as the 2-5 favorite.

Baffert thought so highly of Paynter, he went right into the Santa Anita Derby off one 5 ½-furlong maiden race and the colt finished a commendable fourth behind eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, beaten only 3 ¼ lengths despite stumbling at the start. Ironically, the colt who would finish second to I’ll Have Another in the Derby and Preakness was none other than Bodemeister, who had romped by 9 ½ lengths in the Arkansas Derby.

A week before the Derby, Paynter ran 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 horses away, but was caught in the final furlong by Hierro, the mile run in a snappy 1:35 1/5.

After winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Pimlico on Preakness day by 5 ¾ lengths, Paynter ran in the Belmont Stakes, having only four career starts under him.

I remember McKathan telling me before the race, “Wait until you see him; he is gorgeous. 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.”

Paynter was everything McKathan described and nearly pulled it off. He went to the front and led every step of the way until his Jockey Mike Smith opened up the rail in the final yards and let Union Rags sneak through and nail him by a neck. It was an amazing performance for a colt with so little racing foundation under him and stretching out to a mile and a half.

His next start was the $1 million Haskell Invitational. I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister, and Union Rags all were on the sidelines never to race again, and Paynter looked ready to take control of the 3-year-old division. Most everyone expected him to go to the lead, but it was the Wood Memorial winner 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 the Affirmed Handicap winner and Swaps Stakes runner-up 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.

On July 29, two days after the Haskell, Paynter came down with a fever that turned into pneumonia. He also developed a bad case of diarrhea and was sent to the nearby Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in New Jersey. By August 10 he seemed to be fully recovered and was shipped to Belmont Park and then to Saratoga with the hope of running in the Travers Stakes. But when it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to make the race he was booked on a flight back to California.

However, before the trip, he again developed a fever and was sent to the Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville, New York, where he was diagnosed with colitis, an inflammation of the colon. Paynter’s condition quickly deteriorated and became life-threatening. The veterinarian that supervised the colt’s care was Dr. Laura Javsicas, who became emotionally attached to Paynter and never gave up on him. It was her dedication and determination that was so instrumental in saving his life.

The colt had developed an infection at the site of the catheter and also blood clots in his veins due to problems with his protein levels. He was administered plasma and aggressive antibiotics. But combating the fever, as well as the colitis and diarrhea, he continued to lose weight and there was fear he could develop laminitis. Despite all preventative measures laminitis did develop in three of his feet, which required casts for support.

This is when the Zayat family came to the realization that euthanasia could be necessary, a decision they would have to make.

Ahmed Zayat recalled, “I remember getting a phone call from Dr. (Mark) Cheney, telling me, ‘We have to talk; he’s doing horrible. His bloodwork is insane, his feet are killing him, he’s not eating.’ Dr. Laura was crying, saying, ‘Let’s try. Give it a little more time.’

And so they did. Amazingly, Paynter began to improve. His blood returned to normal and his diarrhea cleared up. But he continued to have low-grade fevers. Most important, however, was the laminitis. Once again, Paynter bucked the odds and was able to pull through. X-rays indicated there was no separation of the laminae and no rotation or sinking of the coffin bone in any of his feet. On September 21, the casts were removed and his feet started returning to normal.

Through daily updates on social media by Zayat, Paynter’s fan base began to increase until the entire country was riveted to his story. He began receiving hundreds of get well cards and handmade posters from children.

But Paynter’s problems weren’t over. When Dr. Javsicas performed an ultrasound she discovered a problem with his colon that would require surgery. What made matters more complicated and surgery more of a risk was that Paynter had lost so much weight during his ordeal he was down to 900 pounds.

On October 2, Paynter was shipped to the New Bolton Center in Maryland, where surgery would be performed by Dr. Louise Southwood, who specialized in equine intestinal medicine and colitis cases. The following morning she removed a 15-inch growth from the colt’s intestine that was filled with bacteria, which it was determined was causing the spikes in his fever.

As he had done so many times before, Paynter recovered and was the perfect patient. Nine days after his surgery a press release was put out stating that Paynter was “cleared of any lingering symptoms and was expected to fully recover.”

“I don’t know how this horse is still alive,” Zayat said. “I’m elated. I’m in heaven. There were so many peaks and valleys. I’m so grateful, happy, and touched by all the care he’s been given, especially by Dr. Laura, and by all the prayers he has received.”

Baffert added, “Paynter has to be the most courageous horse I have ever been around. I kept saying, ‘Don’t give up now big guy.’ I think he had it tougher than I did when I had my heart attack. The odds were so stacked against him, but he’s beat them time and again. He’s always been a real tough horse. His attitude was tough. He’d run through a wall if he had to or run over top of you, but not in a mean way.

“I really didn’t think he was going to make it. If he had gotten on the plane after the Haskell and flown back to California it would have been disastrous, but we caught the temperature real quick. If he had gotten sick on the plane we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

When Paynter departed New Bolton and shipped to Bruce Jackson’s Fair Hill Equine Therapy in Fair Hill, Maryland for rehabilitation, one person who had mixed reactions was Dr. Southwood, who like Dr. Javsicas had fallen in love with the horse.”

“It was sad to see him go, but we’re so glad he was ready to move on.” she said. “He’s such a special horse; it was a privilege to work with a horse like him. He was a great patient and really took good care of himself. He rested when he needed to rest, he had an extremely good appetite, and was an incredible trouper. He’s been through so much and never gave up. Most horses would have stopped eating, but he soldiered on.

“He would get really mad if you didn’t take him for a walk when he wanted to walk. I knew when he came here that Dr. Javsicas had fallen in love with him and it was easy to see why. That’s why it was hard to say goodbye to him. For the past two weeks he’s been a big part of our lives. He was still really sick when he came here, but he showed so much patience; he knew we were trying to help him. He still has weight to gain and it’s going to take a while. You get nervous letting him leave, but he was ready, and it was reassuring to know he was going to a good place.

“If there is one thing we learned about him, regardless of what it might be, if Paynter wants to do something he will do it.

“As he left New Bolton and I took one final look at Paynter I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever see him again, and if so, where and when? In the end, it doesn’t matter. All that does matter was the happy, bright-eyed horse I saw stuffing his mouth with hay, showing not the slightest indication of how sick he was. I really hope he can come back to the races; that would be awesome, but he’s already won the biggest battle he’ll ever have to face and that’s special enough to last a lifetime.”

The next time I saw Paynter was on October 15. A light, steady rain fell as the Cooper Horse Transport van pulled up to the barn at the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center.

Inside the van, Paynter, wearing a thick green blanket, was getting anxious as preparation for unloading began. He was about to embark on the next stage of his incredible journey. But this place was different, as he could tell as soon as he walked into the barn and placed in his new stall. This one, however, had a view where he could see other horses and all the activity around him.

Jackson was elated with everything he saw, as he prepared to begin Paynter’s rehabilitation.

Tina Clark of Cooper Horse Transport, owned by Joy and Keith Cooper, said as she watched Paynter settle in, “He really wanted out of his stall at New Bolton. He was ready to get going. On the van he was the perfect gentleman and shipped beautifully. He was more comfortable once he got on the van. He’s thinking, ‘Ah, this is more like it. I don’t feel like something bad is going happen now.’”

As soon as Paynter was put in his stall, he began munching on his straw, occasionally sniffing his neighbor in the stall behind him. He was already becoming a horse again. A mound of hay was then placed in a corner of the stall and he proceeded to wolf it down, rarely picking his head up, except for an occasional mint and a drink of water.

“As far as rehab, we’re just going to let him put on some weight and relax and just be a horse,” said Jackson, a former trainer who built this remarkable facility in 2006, along with his wife Amy, a former jockey. “He just needs to get his strength back and put some weight back on, and get everything behind him. We’ll check his temperature three times a day.

“Over the next month or two there is nothing we’re going to do from a physical standpoint, as far as exercise. But he’ll go out three or four times a day and graze as much as he wants. There will be no significant walking for the next two or three weeks, just walking from his stall to go outside and graze. We just want to let his guts get normal again after the surgery. He’s been through a lot and we just want to put all that behind him.”

Zayat couldn’t wait to bring his family to see Paynter, but he wisely decided to wait.

“My kids are begging me to see him, but I’m not ready for them to see him yet,” he said. “I want him to put on more weight and look like the Paynter they remember. I just do not know how he survived. I can’t explain it. I keep living this whole ordeal in my dreams. I’ve become so emotionally attached; it’s crazy. It’s like I’m obsessed. I keep asking, ‘How did he survive all these things?”

I visited Paynter again on November 12. As the morning sun burned through the dense fog that had enshrouded the Fair Hill training center, the colt was brought out for his daily round of activity. It had been several weeks since I first saw the colt arrive at the Equine Therapy Center for his rehab.

Since his arrival on that rainy afternoon Paynter had made steady progress, gaining 76 pounds. He was now nearing 1,000 pounds and was on his way to being back to normal weight. No time frame was set as to how much longer he would remain at the facility.

In another important step forward, he had his first set of shoes put on several days earlier and looked like a happy, healthy horse who was enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the horse heaven that is Fair Hill. He had progressed from hand walking to being let out in a round pen to being turned out in a paddock.

On this morning, Paynter was brought out to graze, often picking his head up to check out any activity around him or simply to eye a set of Graham Motion horses heading to the rolling countryside or the paths that meander through the nearby woods. One thing everyone at Fair Hill learned and noticed about Paynter is he is a very social animal who appears to love the company of other horses.

All those who come in contact with him are impressed with the colt’s class and intelligence. And he does love his mints (the red peppermint ones only. He’ll spit out the green spearmint ones). Crinkle some paper and he’ll come jogging across his paddock to you.

Miraculously, Paynter returned to the races on June 14, 2013, some 11 months after the Haskell, winning a seven-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park by 4 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:21 4/5.

But in top-class company he wasn’t quite the brilliant horse we had seen the year before. Six weeks later, he finished second in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, beaten only a half length. In his third start back, he could only finish fifth in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga after lunging at the break and hitting the side of the gate, then racing wide on both turns. A month later he did manage to finish second to eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes.

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was stuck behind a wall of horses down the backstretch, dropped back to 10th, and then came on to finish seventh. Following the race, he was retired to WinStar Farm.

In 2015, Paynter was mated with the 10-year-old mare Kosmo’s Buddy, a hard-knocking racehorse who won or placed in 14 stakes, 13 of them in Maryland and New Jersey. But she had trouble finding the winner’s circle, losing her last 20 starts. On September 3, 2010, she was claimed for $40,000 by Green Mount Farm, who ran her in the Maryland Million Turf Sprint, which had been her last victory before her extensive losing streak. She finished fourth behind eventual Vox Populi Award winner Ben’s Cat and then retired.

After being bred to Paynter in 2015 and declared in foal, Kosmo’s Buddy was put in the Keeneland November Mixed Sale. But there were no takers and she was bought back for $37,000. The following year they consigned her Paynter weanling to the same Keeneland November Mixed Sale, where he was purchased for $40,000 by North Face Bloodstock then pinhooked to the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, selling for $87,000 to the Korea Racing Authority, who named him Knicks Go. The following year, they actually tried pinhooking Knicks Go at the 2018 Ocala Breeders’ 2-Year-old Sale, but withdrew him. So they wound up keeping a horse who has now earned over $5.3 million.

As for Paynter, he hasn’t sired anything remotely as talented as Knicks Go, but has sired several other stakes winners, including Pimlico Special and two-time Deputed Testamony Stakes winner Harper’s Last Ride, winner of just under $700,000.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Paynter’s courageous battle and unlikely return to the races, and now here is his son Knicks Go having the kind of success his sire surely would have enjoyed had he stayed healthy following his impressive performances in the Belmont Stakes and Haskell Invitational just when he was reaching his peak.

If Knicks Go continues to pile up the stakes victories and build up a solid fan base, perhaps he can not only nail down the Horse of the Year title, but join Paynter on the list of Vox Populi Award winners. What a father and son double that would be. Let’s not forget that Knicks Go, who was a Grade 1 winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up at 2, has himself bounced back from a physical issue that likely caused him to completely lose his form at 3, going winless in eight starts, finishing up the track in six of them. Since being turned over to trainer Brad Cox and having his problem corrected his average margin of victory in his two-turn races (excluding the race in Saudi Arabia) has been 6 1/2 lengths.

From a personal standpoint, I am thankful that Knicks Go has allowed me to tell Paynter’s story, for it is one that embodies the spirit of the Thoroughbred and should endure for as long as these noble creatures touch our lives.


Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin, Jaime Corum and Monmouth Park


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