Chris McCarron, who took Friday off because he was running a temperature, came back equally hot Saturday to win the $113,400 San Rafael Stakes aboard Variety Road.
'I feel a lot better today than yesterday,' McCarron said shortly after picking up his 10th stakes victory of the meeting before a Santa Anita crowd of 38,591.
Variety Road came from off the pace to duel Ferdinand, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, as they entered the stretch, catching and overtaking him just three strides from the wire.
"It was a tactical race, and Bill Shoemaker looked like he had control," Variety Road's trainer, Bruce Headley, said. "I thought Shoe was going to win but changed my mind at the 70-yard mark."
Variety Road, a 3-year-old bay colt owned by Kjell Qvale of San Francisco, gave Headley his fifth stakes win of the meeting and earned Qvale $68,400.
Variety Road, who covered the mile on a fast track in 1:35 3/5, paid $7.20, $3.20 and $2.80. Ferdinand paid $3.20 and $3.00, while Jetting Home, ridden by Darrel McHargue, paid $8.40 to show.
Asked if the race had gone according to plan, McCarron said it hadn't.
"Actually, there was no plan," he said. "Bruce didn't tell me how to ride him and I wasn't too sure how it was going to shape up.
"I just wanted to have him in contention by the time I got to the middle of the first turn. I didn't really care how close to the lead I was, just as long as I felt like my horse was going comfortably under me and that he was going to be somewhat within striking distance."
In fact, Variety Road did not get a good start but managed to settle into stride early and seemed to be racing well as the nine-horse field turned into the backstretch.
Grand Allegiance, Darby Fair and Roman Magestraite made the pacesetters for the first six furlongs, with Ferdinand and Variety Road trailing the leaders.
"I wanted him (Ferdinand) following me," McCarron said, "but as it turned out he moved up strongly on the outside at the three-quarter pole so I was just stuck there. This horse is very responsive, though. He feels like he's got a mechanical accelerator in him. Step on the gas and he goes."
McCarron waited to hit the pedal, though. Shoemaker made his move on the far turn and had the lead coming into the stretch, when he headed for the inside. That gave McCarron his opening and Variety Road responded.
"I was glad to see him (Ferdinand) go to the fence when I turned for home," McCarron said. "I thought 'good,' the further away from me he gets the better.' "
In the dramatic run to the wire, Variety Road proved the better horse, but Shoemaker blamed himself for being beaten.
"He (Ferdinand) got the lead too quick and pulled right up," Shoemaker said. "I should have won that one. I blame it on myself."
McCarron, meanwhile, had nothing but praise for Variety Road.
"Every single race he's run, he's run good," the track's leading rider said. "When he's been beaten, he's been beaten by a nice horse. He doesn't have a bad race on his paper. He's very genuine and he's got a lot of ability, too, so it looks like he might have a future."
Headley, who had watched Ferdinand edge Variety Road when the two met in the Santa Catalina Stakes Jan. 29, said the California-bred's next race is likely to be the San Felipe Handicap on March 16.
"We'll probably enter him in the San Felipe and hope to keep him going to the Santa Anita Derby (April 6)," Headley said. "He's nominated for the Kentucky Derby, but we'll wait until we get through the races here before thinking about that."
Grand Allegiance had been considered one of the colts to beat, but finished seventh.
"He washed out more than usual," jockey Ruben Hernandez said. "I tried to slow him down, but every time he heard horses he tried to go faster. Around the 3/16-pole, he started to get really tired."