A crowd of only 28,189 at Santa Anita spent most of Sunday dodging raindrops.
The horses had it even worse. In the first race, they were hit by pellet-sized hail running down the backstretch.
And then after the $131,600 San Felipe Handicap, run in a light mist, a fan had to duck a safety helmet and goggles that were thrown at him by jockey Alex Solis, who said the spectator called him a name and threw something at him.
Solis finished last aboard 18-1 longshot Majestic Island in the five-horse San Felipe, but the three other horses chasing winner Variety Road did little better.
On a good day for ducking, none of the contenders could dodge Variety Road, whose six-length victory makes him the No. 1 challenger when he meets another California-bred, Kentucky Derby favorite Snow Chief, in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
Although Bruce Headley is the hottest trainer in town, if not the entire country, he still didn't seem eager to send out Variety Road for another confrontation with Snow Chief, undefeated this year and winner of the Florida Derby in his last start.
Snow Chief beat Variety Road as a 2-year-old last year, and finished four lengths ahead of Headley's horse when they last met in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes on Jan. 12 at Santa Anita.
"Snow Chief will be hard to beat," Headley said. "He carried high weight (126 pounds, to Variety Road's 115) last time and still beat us easily. In the Santa Anita Derby, we'll be at equal weights (122 pounds). But my horse is an honest colt and he'll be trying."
On a track listed as sloppy from 2 1/2 inches of rain that brought the season's total to almost 16, Variety Road was farther back than jockey Chris McCarron wanted to be in the early going. But while staying next to the rail on the stretch turn, Variety Road passed Dancing Pirate and then increased his margin over a closing Big Play in the run to the wire.
Arewehavingfunyet, trained by Wayne Lukas, as is Big Play, had little chance to become the first filly to win the San Felipe. Second behind the pace-setting Dancing Pirate for a half-mile, Arewehavingfunyet practically stopped on the far turn and finished fourth, 27 1/2 lengths behind Variety Road.
Variety Road, bred and owned by San Francisco automobile dealer Kjell Qvale, won his second straight stake, his third race in eight lifetime starts and increased his career earnings to $210,295 with the $73,350 winner's share of the purse.
Variety Road, timed in 1:45 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles, paid $3.60, $2.40 and $2.10. Big Play's prices were $3.60 and $2.40 and Dancing Pirate, who finished 9 1/2 lengths behind the winner, paid $2.80.
The 52-year-old Headley, who has been training since 1959, had won only eight stakes in his life at Santa Anita prior to this season. Variety Road's win was Headley's seventh of the meeting, coming on the heels of Halo Folks' victory Saturday in the Potrero Grande Handicap. Headley could make it three straight today when he saddles Her Royalty in the Las Cienegas Handicap.
McCarron, who won his meet-leading 13th stakes, thought Variety Road dawdled because the mud from the leaders was hitting him in the face.
"I was lucky enough to get to Dancing Pirate soon enough so I could come inside and miss a pool of water sitting along the rail at the stretch turn," McCarron said. "Then Variety Road just outclassed Big Play. When I got to the front, in the two strides it took me to switch my whip, he put his ears up, like he was waiting for the competition."
Said jockey Gary Stephens of Big Play: "My horse was done at the eighth pole. He had to move to try to keep up with Variety Road on the turn, and then he flattened out. It was probably due to a lack of racing (Big Play was making his fourth career start)."
On Friday, Stevens was another jockey who was bothered by a fan while leaving the track. He tried to climb a rail and unsuccessfully swung at the heckler. Two weeks ago, Laffit Pincay was harassed by a fan a couple of times in the tunnel that leads from the track toward the jockeys' room.
Said Solis of Sunday's incident: "He called me a (bleep), but when he threw something at me, that's what made me mad. I don't know what he threw, but it was something. I've never done something like this, but what the guy did made me mad."
Solis, who is the regular rider for Snow Chief, got his goggles and helmet back. A woman who appeared to be with the fan in question was trying to play peacemaker while the jockey and the fan jawed on opposite sides of the wrought-iron picket fence to the right of the winner's circle. Later, track security officers said they had interviewed the fan, who claimed that he hadn't said anything to Solis.
Snow Chief is bound for the Kentucky Derby on May 3 no matter what he does in the Santa Anita Derby, but Headley won't commit his plans beyond the April 6 race.
"It's one race at a time," Headley said. "I know that's a cliche, but that's the way we're playing it."