Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is no stranger to the Belmont Stakes and the role of trying to have a 3-year-old join Thoroughbred racings' immortals by winning the elusive Triple Crown.
But on Saturday, Baffert will try to play spoiler when he saddles lightly-raced but talented Paynter in hopes of derailing the dreams of the connections and fans surrounding the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ, I'll Have Another.
Baffert has nine classic wins, including the 2001 Belmont with Point Given, who was able to win only two races in the Triple Crown after losing the Kentucky Derby. Three times, the silver-haired trainer arrived in New York on the doorstep of history only to be denied in the final leg of the series, two in heartbreaking fashion.
In 1997, Silver Charm appeared to have all the ingredients and seemed more than worthy of snapping the Triple Crown drought. He was fast, tough, durable and always delivered his best. The superb gray turned for home in a good spot and led until the latter stages of the Belmont, only to be denied by fresh and talented Touch Gold, expertly handled that day by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCaron.
Undeterred from the devastating loss, Baffert returned a year later with Real Quiet, who peaked at the right time to bag both the Derby and Preakness and appeared ready to bring the Triple Crown dream to fruition. Real Quiet entered the stretch drive with a full head of steam and appeared to be home free on a clear lead, until the son of Quiet American was gunned down on the final stride by the fast-closing Victory Gallop, who had been second to his rival at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
Fast forward to 2002, when a late acquisition brought Illinois Derby winner War Emblem to the Baffert barn just a few weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. The late-blooming son of Private Emblem took the Derby and Preakness in impressive fashion under Baffert's tutelage, giving the larger-than-life conditioner his third Derby trophy and another chance at the Triple Crown.
However, the drama waned much earlier this time, as War Emblem stumbled at the start and was never a serious factor in a race won by 70-1 longshot Sarava.
So here we are 10 years later and the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. Paynter, a superb-looking son of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again out of the immediate female family of two-time Breeders' Cup Classic hero Tiznow, will be sent out in hopes of crashing the Triple Crown party, rather than rooting for one.
Paynter was so highly thought of as a youngster that he was sent off at 2-5 odds in his debut race at Santa Anita, where he delivered with a closing tally at 5« furlongs. Thrown to the wolves in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in just his second lifetime start, the $325,000 yearling purchase finished a very respectable fourth against some of the finer horses in the country, including I'll Have Another and Grade 1 winner Creative Cause, who was third in the Preakness.
Bouncing back quickly, the long-striding colt recorded a solid effort in the Derby Trial three weeks later at Churchill Downs, finishing second after being caught in the late stages by a promising rival, and Paynter will enter the Belmont Stakes off a confidence-building allowance victory at Pimlico, proving tons the best at 1-9 odds.
His BRIS Speed figures read 93-93-105-107 - a sign of an improving horse - and Paynter has posted a pair of solid drills in preparation at Belmont Park.
The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes is a mystery for all horses, as it is a one-of-a-kind race for sophomore horses, but Paynter possesses the pedigree to thrive at the trip and the right human connections in Baffert and jockey John Velazquez, who won the race with the super filly Rags to Riches in 2007. It would seem logical that if an upset is to occur on Saturday, it would come from this corner.
Maybe the time is now for Baffert to play the role of Belmont spoiler.