With the departure of I’ll Have Another to injury that eventually forced him to retire, the three year old male division was left for Bodemeister to control. The Bob Baffert trained colt who destroyed the competition in the Arkansas Derby by 9 1/4 lengths fell short twice to I’ll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. However, we haven’t seen him in action since May 19 at Pimlico. With injuries to several other key horses such as Union Rags, the door swung wide open for other horses to make a splash. I don’t think anyone thought that one horse would again come from the Baffert barn.
The Awesome Again colt Paynter was a late bloomer and un-raced as a two year old. His debut came on February 18 at Santa Anita where he galloped away from a small special weight field. His follow-up was a 4th place result in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 7. He finished 3 3/4 lengths behind winner I’ll Have Another. A solid performance considering his lack of experience. He did not have enough graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, but was still shipped to Churchill Downs to race in the The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes (G3). He finished 2nd behind Hierro.
On the Preakness Stakes under card, he easily won an Allowance race by 5 3/4 lengths. He led the entire race. His running style is typical Baffert. He is aggressive on the front end and can seemingly last forever. The same as Bodemeister performed in the Derby and Preakness. Even in defeat, he posted ridiculous fractions and somehow hung around.
Would Paynter be able to go gate to wire in the 1 1/2 miles Belmont Stakes?! That is alot to ask of a horse who hasn’t won a stakes race and just four races to his resume.
He led as expected throughout the entire race until the final few jumps when multiple graded stakes winner Union Rags passed him on the rail to win by a neck. Same story for Baffert and company as it was yet another heart breaking loss in a triple crown race. Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness, then Paynter in the Belmont.
With several of the major players from the first half of the season out with injuries or retired, it was up to horses such as Dullahan, Gemologist and Paynter to takeover the division. Dullahan, the Blue Grass Stakes winner finished a hard closing 3rd in the Derby, bypassed the Preakness and finished a disappointing 7th in the Belmont. Gemologist was unbeaten in five career starts before getting hurt in his 16th place performance in the Derby.
These three met on Sunday at Monmouth Park for the $1,000,000 Haskell Invitational (G1) going 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. Oddly enough, Paynter did not take the early lead. It was Javier Castellano aboard Gemologist. Rafael Bejarano held Paynter in second, while Dullahan was much closer than usual. He sat just 3-4 lengths behind as they hit the back stretch. With fractions of 23.88 and 48.01, Gemologist just might be able to hang around for a final push. Paynter made his move on the far turn and powered passed Gemologist. Castellano couldn’t do anything with his colt. It was not going to happen on this day. As they turned for home, Bejarano put Paynter on cruise control and continued to put distance between his colt and the field. He would win by 3 3/4 lengths. The Jerry Hollendorfer trained Nonios finished 2nd, 3 1/2 lengths in front of Stealcase, who was 3 3/4 lengths in front of Handsome Mike. Both Dullahan and Gemologist did not fire and ended up in 5th and 6th, which was last and second to last.
So in less than two months, we’ve gone from having a potential triple crown winner in I’ll Have Another to Bodemeister as the horse to fill the void with the retirement of I’ll Have Another, to Union Rags being retired a couple of weeks after winning the Belmont to Paynter thrusting himself to the top of the three year old male division. As of now, there is only one other horse who could challenge Paynter and they could meet next month.
Alpha, the Kiaran McLaughlin trained Bernardini colt, has a formidable resume except for the two biggest races. Aside from finishing well behind in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (11th) and Kentucky Derby (12th), he’s never been worse than second in 6 races. He finished 2nd to Union Rags last year in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park, won the Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct in February and finished 2nd to Gemologist in the Resorts World Casino Wood Memorial (G1) in April. He was injured in the Kentucky Derby and returned to action Sunday afternoon at Saratoga for the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2). It’s the tune-up for the $1,000,000 Travers Stakes (G1) next month.
Jockey Ramon Dominguez was allowed to take Alpha on the lead and set moderate fractions of 24.40 and 49.30 for the first half mile in the 1 1/8 miles race. He was never threatened and sailed home to an easy two lengths victory. The rest of the field including stakes winners Liaison, Teeth of the Dog and Prospective were spread out and never were a threat. For Alpha, that was his third career stakes win, and second in graded company. He has yet to win a Grade 1 race. Will the Travers be his first or will Paynter stretch his disivion lead?