OCEANPORT, N.J. — Monmouth Park officials might want to consider changing the name of their marquee race to the Bob Baffert Invitational. The Hall of Fame trainer has now won the $1 million Haskell the last six times he has started a horse. He is so good that he won it Sunday without even venturing from his Southern California base. (No private plane, no Baffert.)
Paynter nearly won the Belmont Stakes, just like Baffert nearly won all the 2012 Triple Crown races. Union Rags got him that day. There was no Union Rags coming after Paynter in the stretch Sunday. The colt tracked front-runner Gemologist for the first half of the 1 1/8-mile race. With Gemologist's rider, Javier Castellano, asking his colt for everything heading into the far turn, Rafael Bejarano, on Paynter, just cruised by, blowing the race open with a 23.36-second third quarter. Nonios made a decent run at the 1-1 favorite, but Paynter had much more to give, eventually winning it by 3 3/4 lengths and running the distance in a very good 1:48.87.
Gemologist retreated to last, just behind Dullahan. Longshots Stealcase and Handsome Mike were third and fourth, respectively.
"When you win them, they always feel like the first one," said Baffert, on a phone hookup from Del Mar. "They're exciting. They never get old … When he turned for home, he just pinned his ears and took off."
Paynter will retreat to Del Mar, but will return east for the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The extra 220 yards do not look like an issue. Unlike most modern-day trainers, Baffert's horses not only compete well in the Triple Crown races, they keep competing in other big races. Paynter has the look of a horse that could be a major 3-year-old during horse racing's second season.
Baffert missed his trip to the Jersey Shore and his stop at Max's Hot Dogs a few furlongs from the track, near the ocean. He made certain assistant Jim Barnes got a dog. Barnes, in fact, got one 3 days in a row.
Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and jockey Mike Smith ran second in all the TC races after leading for almost all of them. Smith stayed behind in California, but this was not about the rider. It was about the horse.
"I had a perfect trip," said Bejarano, who knew the race was over when he saw Castellano asking Gemologist so early.
The rail was not really the place to be so Bejarano was thrilled when he was able to get his colt off the rail. Nonios was not so fortunate as he was on the rail until the far turn. Might have been closer if he had stayed outside, but the result was not going to change.
Justin Zayat sat in for his father. Born in Teaneck, N.J., this was always a race he wanted to win.
"I've never been here," Justin Zayat said. "I've always had to watch it on TV. For me to be in person after the whole Triple Crown, running second, second, second and finally breaking through and do it in New Jersey, there's nothing better."
Even without winning any of the TC races, Baffert is having one of his best years. He has won nearly 100 races and is winning with an amazing 32 percent of his starters. Still …
"Those three races will haunt me for a long time, but this really helps make up for it," Barnes said.
Baffert's first Haskell was in 1997. His horse finished second. Then, he had a third and another second. He brought eventual Horse of the Year Point Given to Monmouth in 2001 for his first Haskell win. He hasn't lost since. When asked to compare Paynter to his other Haskell winners, Baffert brought up Point Given. That is very high praise.
Paynter had an ankle issue last summer and did not make his debut until Feb. 18. His second start was the Santa Anita Derby so it was clear the trainer thought the horse was special.
"We would like to have won the Belmont with him," Baffert said. "Today showed the world he's a serious horse."
Even without a star horse, Haskell Day still attracted 35,253. Turns out they may have seen a star after all.