A field of six was entered Wednesday morning for Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, and trainer Bob Baffert has the powerful 1-2 punch of Paynter and Liaison primed to go.
Paynter is making just his second start since a near year-long layoff. During that time, the bay colt was fighting several serious health issues, including laminitis and colitis.
The well-bred son of Awesome Again, out of a full sister to Hall of Famer Tiznow, fell ill just as he was rising to the top of the active three-year-old class after the retirements of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero I'll Have Another and Belmont winner Union Rags. Thwarted by Union Rags in the final strides of the 1 ½-mile Belmont, Paynter came right back to dominate the Haskell Invitational, and appeared poised for a big second half of the season.
Unfortunately, Paynter wound up fighting for his life in the hospital last summer, and his condition was touch-and-go for a time. The Kentucky-bred returned to training over the winter following a final surgery for an abscessed area in his colon and showed he had fully recovered when taking an allowance at Hollywood Park on June 14 by 4 ½ lengths.
Liaison was given a vacation following his ninth-placed run in the Travers last August, but his time off was more sedate than Paynter's forced break. The Indian Charlie four-year-old scored in the CashCall Futurity and Real Quiet as a juvenile, but was unable to find the winner's circle during his sophomore season.
He returned on March 31 and immediately got back to his winning ways with a half-length victory in the Santana Mile. A 1 ½-length triumph in the Mervyn LeRoy followed at the San Diego distance of 1 1/16 miles, and the bay enters Saturday's race off a runner-up effort in the Californian behind the re-opposing Clubhouse Ride.
Liaison drew post position No. 4 under Martin Garcia while Paynter will break to his immediate inside with Rafael Bejarano aboard.
Clubhouse Ride was assigned the far outside post with Joe Talamo back in the saddle for the first time since a third-place effort in an optional claimer at Del Mar last August. The Craig Lewis pupil broke a case of seconditis when taking the Californian in June at Hollywood Park after finishing behind Game On Dude in the Charles Town Classic, Santa Anita Handicap and San Antonio in his prior three.
The San Diego will be only the second assignment of his last six that the five-year-old son of Candy Ride won't be facing that rival after running fourth to Game On Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap last out on July 6.
Chief Havoc is the only three-year-old in the field, and enters off a nice front-running victory in the Swaps on Independence Day. That was the Peter Miller charge's second straight win after a similar 4 ¾-length score against allowance rivals. The chestnut son of Giant's Causeway will be cutting back slightly in distance from those two nine-furlong contests with Edwin Maldonado in the irons for the first time.
Kettle Corn forced Game On Dude to work for the Hollywood Gold Cup win last out, finishing second by just a length. The Candy Ride six-year-old was also fourth in the Californian, runner-up in the Mervyn LeRoy and third in the Native Diver in his three races prior to that. The bay veteran ran third in this contest last year while following the same path but is cross-entered to Friday's Grade 3, $100,000 Cougar II Handicap. Kettle Corn drew the rail with jockey Victor Espinoza to ride for conditioner John Sadler.
The Dan Hendricks-trained Batti Man completes the San Diego field with Brice Blanc aboard as he tries to improve off a fading fifth in the Californian most recently. That was only the second stakes attempt by the five-year-old gelding, whose previous try resulted in a fourth-place run in the Tokyo City on March 23.
Sophomore fillies will have their turn in the spotlight earlier on the card as a field of seven take to the track in the $200,000 Fleet Treat going seven furlongs on the Polytrack.
Last-out Hollywood Oaks heroine Doinghardtimeagain made her racing debut at Del Mar last August, finishing second, and tops this field off three straight stakes scores. The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee has finished worse than third just once in her career and will be reverting in distance with Bejarano aboard.
Looking to turn the tables will be Sweet Marini, who set the pace in the Melair before being overtaken by Doinghardtimeagain in the stretch. The Baffert filly was a front-running 2 ½-length allowance winner when last seen in May.
Also entered are Qiaona and Warren's Veneda, the respective second and fourth in the Campanile at Golden Gate Fields in early June.