The three standouts from last year's Triple Crown series--Ferdinand, Snow Chief and Broad Brush--had earned more money in one or two races than Variety Road had banked in his career.
But horses aren't much when it comes to numbers.
Variety Road, a 24-1 longshot who hadn't won a race since last August, seemed to lengthen his stretch-running stride every time Laffit Pincay hit him with his whip, and at the wire he was a neck better than Broad Brush in Sunday's $163,800 San Fernando Stakes before 44,106 at Santa Anita.
Variety Road, a Kentucky Derby candidate last year until suffering a virus and an abscess on his neck, was putting up his modest $225,225 bankroll against the Triple Crown millionaires. Going into Sunday's race, Preakness winner Snow Chief had earned $2.8 million, Broad Brush $1.4 million and Derby winner Ferdinand $1.1 million.
Most handicappers figured the San Fernando would end with Ferdinand, Snow Chief and Broad Brush finishing close to each other in some kind of order, and that they did, only they ran 2-3-4 instead of 1-2-3.
Broad Brush wound up 2 3/4 lengths in front of Snow Chief, who was third by 3 1/2 lengths over Ferdinand. The other four starters in the 1 1/8-mile race were just as strung out, bringing up the rear as Variety Road had been expected to do.
Variety Road, earning $96,300 for his owner and breeder, San Francisco automobile dealer Kjell Qvale, paid $50.80, $13.40 and $5.40.
After Snow Chief's plodding early fractions, Variety Road's time was 1:49, which was the third-slowest for a winner of the stake in its last 19 runnings.
Broad Brush, who still pleased his trainer, Dick Small, with a near-miss in his first start since October, paid $6.20 and $3.60.
Snow Chief, once 3-5 in the betting before closing as the 9-10 favorite, paid $3. Ferdinand, despite his 1-length win over Snow Chief in the Malibu three weeks ago, went off as the second choice at 13-10.
If there was a horse with an excuse, it was Snow Chief, who bobbled and kicked himself coming out of the gate. He was nicked in two places, came back to the unsaddling area bleeding and had a large white bandage applied to his right front ankle and foot as he cooled out in the post-race test barn.
"That had to hurt, it couldn't have helped," said Snow Chief's jockey, Pat Valenzuela. "He was just going in a gallop down the backside, and I thought that would give me plenty of horse to finish with. But he tired at the eighth pole.
"Maybe he wasn't as fit as we thought he was, because of the weather."
In Snow Chief's next-to-last workout for the San Fernando, he ran a mile in 1:42 on an off track. The same morning, Variety Road worked in 1:40 2/5.
"When I saw that, it gave me the feeling that my horse was coming up to the race well," said Bruce Headley, Variety Road's trainer.
Variety Road needed something in the mornings, because his last two races had been counter-productive. In a race that Headley thought he was going to win, Variety Road was part of an ugly five-horse pileup near the end of the far turn at Santa Anita on Oct. 16.
One of the other horses was destroyed, one jockey, Terry Lipham, had his career ended because of the injuries, and another rider, Chris McCarron, still faces a long recovery period.
In his last race, the Malibu, Variety Road, perhaps startled by a horse alongside making a noise, nuzzled the gate and broke through prior to the start.
"When that happens, a horse hardly ever runs well," said Headley, who watched Variety Road finish seventh. To make sure the Kennedy Road-Variety Queen California-bred 4-year-old wouldn't avoid traffic, Headley worked him behind three horses between starts.
Pincay was riding Variety Road for the first time Sunday, with Rafael Meza, the colt's jockey in the Malibu, taking the mount on Don B. Blue, who ran seventh.
Variety Road will not forget Pincay, who whacked him countless times through the stretch with his whip and even struck Angel Cordero, Broad Brush's jockey, at least once. Cordero said he had a whip burn on his right forearm and added:
"Now I know why horses run for Laffit."
With Snow Chief in no hurry and there being no one but Broad Brush to run with him early, Pincay had Variety Road in third place much of the way. Ferdinand was in fifth place, behind Young Blade, but was making no move at the leaders.
As the field straightened out for the stretch drive, Broad Brush began to edge past Snow Chief. But Variety Road was zeroing in on both of them. "He probably felt the fright that Laffit was putting in him," Headley said.
Cordero thought that Broad Brush, who seems to lose interest when he gets the lead, tried to pull himself up when he passed Snow Chief, but Small didn't agree.
"He tried to get going again, but by that time the winner was past us," the trainer said. "The slow pace worked against us. The horse is capable of running up front, like he did today, but he can get bored when he gets in that position."
Charlie Whittingham, who trains Ferdinand, also cited the slow pace as a deterrent.
"How can you catch up when they run the first half-mile in :48 2/5?" Whittingham said. "You would have had to run the last eighth of a mile in a great time after what they did early."
Variety Road had beaten Ferdinand before, by a half-length in the San Rafael at Santa Anita last February. Then after winning the San Felipe Handicap three weeks later, Variety Road finished sixth as Snow Chief ran first and Ferdinand was third in the Santa Anita Derby.
That was Variety Road's last race for more than four months. While Ferdinand and Snow Chief went to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, Snow Chief to finish 11th as the favorite, Variety Road's temperature soared to 106 degrees.
"He was very ill," Qvale said. "For a while, we didn't think he was going to live. For two weeks, we had a vet with him twice a day, trying to pull him out of it. It took him a long time to come back, but now it looks like he's right where he was last year."
And where is that?
Good enough, apparently, to be on the same track with the moneybags Triple Crown horses from last year.
There are other races ahead, of course, starting with the $500,000 Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 8. Until then, though, Ferdinand, Snow Chief and Broad Brush can only contemplate what hit them.
Horse Racing Notes
Melair, the 4-year-old filly who won all five of her career starts, including a win over Snow Chief in the Silver Screen Handicap at Hollywood Park last year, underwent stomach surgery Friday for the removal of a large part of her intestine. Trainer John Sadler said her racing career is over and now an attempt will be made to save her life. "The first 12 hours after the surgery were critical and at least she's come out of that fine," Sadler said. "But it's still a life-threatening situation." Jay Rose did the surgery at the San Luis Rey Equine Clinic in Bonsall. Melair, after beating Snow Chief in July, didn't run again, being sidelined by a respiratory problem that led to bleeding a month ago at Hollywood Park.
Doug Atkins, who recently lost his position as secretary-treasurer with the California division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn. after 20 years, said that he was a "sacrificial lamb." Barton Heller, the Bay Area trainer who was president of the division, also was removed from office by the national executive committee of the HBPA, which represents owners and trainers.
Both Heller and Atkins were deposed after they followed the instructions of the division's 11-man board of directors and refused to pay the fourth-quarter assessment to the national office in a squabble with Ed Flint, the national president. The assessment--reportedly in the vicinity of $50,000--was later paid, but according to Atkins, Flint and the national executive committee ousted him and Heller the following day. "I did what my local board wanted and then I paid the penalty," Atkins said. Heller made this comment: "The situation (with the national organization) is not sad, it's terrible. I don't have one enemy in California. I have had people disagree with me during the two years I've been division president, but I've never gone over the head of my local board." Noble Threewitt, a trainer at Santa Anita, will complete the final year of Heller's three-year term and Atkins has been temporarily replaced by Don Johnson, who has been executive director of the California division.
Terry Lipham, who suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung and the removal of his spleen in a five-horse spill on October 16 at Santa Anita, said he is considering a training career after his doctor advised him to quit riding. Lipham, a former star quarter-horse jockey, won the 1983 Santa Anita Handicap with Bates Motel. . . . Alex Solis, a jockey who suffered a broken thumb and broken leg in a spill a month ago at Hollywood Park, said he hopes to resume riding in early February. . . . Son of Raja, winner of a $13,000 race at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20, was disqualified after a post-race test showed that he had raced with an illegal tranquilizer in his system. Son of Raja's trainer, Hector Palma, was fined $1,000 by the stewards.