07/25/2013 3:57PM

Del Mar: Paynter story begins new chapter in San Diego

Shigeki Kikkawa
Paynter makes the second start of his comeback in the San Diego on Saturday. His goal is the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This content is part of a free preview of DRF Plus. Click to learn more.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Last fall, when Paynter was battling laminitis and colitis, starting him in a race such as Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, seemed like a daydream gone astray.

“He had no shot of making it,” trainer Bob Baffert said.

Paynter survived those illnesses. He made it back to the track last December. He made it to the winner’s circle in his 2013 debut at Betfair Hollywood Park in June. He can easily win the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap over 1 1/16 miles.

“It’s an amazing story,” Baffert said.

One that seems far from finished.

DRF Plus Preview

Owned by Zayat Stables, Paynter will be favored in the San Diego, the 4-year-old colt’s first start around two turns since an emphatic win in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park last July. Paynter became ill in the days and weeks after that race and was in and out of veterinary clinics for the next 90 days. At one point, his weight fell to the low 900s before rebounding to more than 1,100 pounds. Paynter rejoined Baffert’s stable in late December.

Any question about whether he had recovered from the illnesses was answered with an eye-catching win in a seven-furlong allowance race on June 14. Paynter took the lead at the start and pulled clear of seven rivals to win by 4 1/2 lengths under jockey Rafael Bejarano.

Bejarano has the mount on Paynter in the San Diego, which drew a field of six. Paynter is the 122-pound topweight, spotting his rivals from 2 to 8 pounds.

“He’s been doing well,” Baffert said. “This is a race to move him to a different level. He’s always had the ability. He’s fit, healthy, and happy.”

The competition includes the stakes winners Chief Havoc, Clubhouse Ride, Kettle Corn, and Liaison, and the speedy Batti Man, who may set the pace.

Clubhouse Ride and Liaison were first and second in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes over 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Park on June 1. Clubhouse Ride followed that win with a fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 6. Liaison, a four-time stakes winner who was sixth in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, was held out of the Gold Cup in favor of the San Diego.

[DEL MAR 2013: Complete meet coverage, schedule, race replays]

Kettle Corn, second in the Gold Cup, was entered for Friday’s Cougar II Handicap over 1 1/2 miles, but trainer John Sadler said on Thursday that Kettle Corn is more likely to run in the San Diego.

Chief Havoc is the only 3-year-old in the field. Trained by Peter Miller, Chief Havoc won the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on July 4 in his 2013 stakes debut. Chief Havoc will race near the front, depending on where Batti Man and Paynter are positioned in the early furlongs.

Edwin Maldonado has the mount on Chief Havoc, replacing Bejarano who was aboard in the Swaps. Chief Havoc breaks from post 5, outside of Batti Man and Paynter.

“The speed is inside of us with Batti Man and Paynter, so we’ll let Edwin play the break,” Miller said. “We don’t need the lead, but if they give it to us we’ll take it.”

Essentially, all eyes will be on Paynter, from the paddock to the start of the race. His comeback from illness has caught the attention of racing fans nationwide, and his fan base has swelled since his win.

Baffert seldom discusses long-term plans with his leading runners. Thursday, Baffert did not say whether he would use the San Diego as a prep with Paynter for the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic on Aug. 25, a race he has selected for his top handicap horse, Game On Dude.

Instead, Baffert had loftier goals for Paynter – at Santa Anita in November.

“The only race we want to get him to is the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” he said.