Kettle Corn (left) goes by Paynter (center) to win the San Diego Handicap.

Kettle Corn (left) goes by Paynter (center) to win the San Diego Handicap.

Benoit Photo

Kettle Corn Pops in San Diego; Paynter 2nd

Hollywood Gold Cup runner-up collars heavy favorite for victory July 27 at Del Mar.

Kettle Corn  came from off the pace to win the $200,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. III), spoiling the return of Paynter  to graded stakes competition July 27 at Del Mar (VIDEO).

With Victor Espinoza aboard, Kettle Corn rallied three wide in the stretch to win by half a length over Paynter, who was making his second start since returning from a life-threatening battle last year with colitis and other maladies.

Second, a length behind Game On Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) three weeks ago, Kettle Corn was at the top of his form to claim the San Diego, a major steppingstone to the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I) Aug. 25.

John Sadler trains Kettle Corn for Lee and Susan Searing’s C R K Stables. The 6-year-old son of Candy Ride  has had one prior graded stakes victory, taking the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) at Betfair Hollywood Park in December 2011.

"He always runs well in the big races. He's been a very good, honest, blue-collar horse," Sadler said of Kettle Corn, who was scratched out of the Cougar II (gr. III) at 1 1/2 miles a day earlier in favor of the San Diego.

"We're really happy. He deserves to win a big one. He's really good on this track, he won down here two years ago and he was third in this race last year. Hopefully this year we'll win the big one (Pacific Classic). "

Out of the winning Lil E. Tee mare Somethingbeautiful, Kettle Corn was bred in Kentucky by Jim Plemmons.

Final time for the 1 1/16-mile San Diego was a sharp 1:41.83 over the Polytrack.

Paynter, last year's Haskell Invitational (gr. I) victor after he missed winning the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) by a neck, was hardly disgraced in defeat. Pressing pacesetter Batti Man through solid fractions, he was put to a long drive by jockey Rafael Bejarano to get the lead near the furlong mark and could not quite hold on against a fitter opponent.

He went off the 3-5 favorite in the field of six, with Kettle Corn second choice at 7-2.

"He never seemed comfortable out there," Bejarano said of Paynter. "I felt like I had plenty of horse, but he just wasn't liking what he was doing. He was right there on the turn, but he didn't have enough at the end."

Batti Man, who held on for third under Brice Blanc, was keen to get the early advantage and Paynter fell into the second spot while also pulling early. Swap Stakes (gr. II) winner Chief Havoc, the only 3-year-old in the field, race third on the outside as Kettle Corn dropped to the back of the field from his rail post.

Kettle Corn was able to save ground into the final turn as Batti Man reeled off fractions of :23.41, :47.28, and 1:11.24 and led Paynter by about one length into the stretch. Paynter battled gamely to get the lead from Batti Man near mid-stretch, while Kettle Corn, angled off the inside after progressing through the turn, was charging home.

A length behind Rail Trip in last year's San Diego, Kettle Corn proved best in the final strides this time under left-handed urging from Espinoza.

"John told me not to get too far back," said Espinoza after recording his 75th stakes win at Del Mar. "We needed to be close. This is a smart horse; he knows what to do. He wants to do his own thing at the beginning, but he knows what to do at the end. He's a good horse to ride."

Paynter outfought the Argentina-bred Batti Man for second by three-quarters of a length. Chief Havoc was fourth, followed by Liaison  and Clubhouse Ride .

Kettle Corn, who carried 118 pounds, improved his record to 8-5-5 in 24 starts with earnings of $653,111. Known as a runner that usually gets a piece, the bay horse snapped a four-race losing streak dating back to an allowance win on the turf at Hollywood Park Nov. 8.

He paid $9.20, $3.40, and $2.60, keying a $19.20 exacta with Paynter, the 122-pound highweight returning $2.40 and $2.10. Batti Man, sent off at odds of 34-1, paid $6 to show.

Zayat Stables, on its Facebook page, was pleased with Paynter's performance.

"We are so proud of Paynter. Like always he fought like a champ. Came out of the race great and we will be back to fight another day."

Trainer Bob Baffert added in a tweet: "PAYNTER ran a great race. He should move forward after that. They ran fast."