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By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

OCEANPORT, N.J. – Trainer Bob Baffert extended his remarkable hold on the $1 million Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) when Paynter emerged as his sixth consecutive winning starter with a rousing 3 ¾-length triumph on Sunday at Monmouth Park.

“When you win, it always feels like the first time,” Baffert said during a phone interview. “It’s always exciting. It never gets old.”

What had gotten old was his penchant for finishing second in Triple Crown races. Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) winner I’ll Have Another reeled in Bodemeister in each of those two races. Jockey Mike Smith allowed Union Rags to storm up the rail to edge pacesetting Paynter by a neck in the final dramatic strides of the grueling 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (G1).

Paynter and Bodemeister are both owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Baffert. When 20-year-old Justin Zayat saw Haskell runner-up Nonios briefly close ground, he could not help but to flash back to his family’s heartbreaking setbacks in the spring classics.

“I saw that,” Zayat said, “and I said, ‘Please don’t do this to me. Not again.’ ”

Then, Paynter justified the faith Baffert and the Zayat family kept in him since he was an unraced 2-year-old filled with potential but in need of time to develop. After sitting off slow fractions carved out by Gemologist, the Awesome Again colt was simply awesome.

“When he turned for home,” Baffert said, “he pinned his ears and took off.”

It is a sight fans at Monmouth have grown accustomed to seeing. The Hall of Fame conditioner, who has curtailed his travel since suffering a heart attack in Dubai in late March, has sent out the last three Haskell winners in Lookin At Lucky, Coil and now Paynter. He is perfect with his last six starters in a torrid streak that began with Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002) and Roman Ruler (2005).

Of nine Haskell entrants, Baffert also boasts runner-up finishes with Anet (1997) and Captain Steve (2000). Forestry took third in 1999.

When asked to compare Paynter to his previous Haskell victors, he replied, “They are all different and unique in their own way. He kind of grinds it out. He can go longer and handle a mile and a quarter. He’s tough. He can handle what you throw at him. He’s a lot like Point Given.”

Point Given, of course, separated himself from other Baffert trainees who took the Haskell by going on to win the Travers. The “Mid-Summer Derby,” set for Aug. 25 at Saratoga Race Course, is the next target for Paynter.

He showed a dimension in completing the 1 1/8-mile Haskell in 1:48.87 that may prove to be invaluable when he is asked to go a critical extra furlong in the Travers. Although somewhat headstrong early, new rider Rafael Bejarano succeeded in convincing him to sit off Gemologist, who wilted under the pressure they exerted.

Javier Castellano never expected to be in front early with Gemologist. But he quickly found himself there.

“When Paynter broke so slow, I had to go to the lead. I had no choice,” Castellano said. “Plan A was to sit just off Paynter, but I had to go to Plan B.

“The first part of the race he was so comfortable.  I was so happy. But when I asked him to quicken up, he just didn’t have his normal kick.”

Gemologist, who ran off five consecutive victories to open his career, faded to last in the field of six in his first start since he ran a listless 16th in the Kentucky Derby. He was found to have a bruised left front foot after the Run for the Roses.

And so another Haskell went to Baffert and his top assistant, Jimmy Barnes. The latter already was thinking ahead to the next edition.

“I’m searching for that horse right now,” he said.

For an Equibase chart, click here.

PAYNTER ROLLS TO HASKELL ROMP

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Photo By Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

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