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A little more than two hours after coasting to victory in the 130th Travers Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday, Lemon Drop Kid stood quietly at the rear of his stall, staring out the window. Groom Vincente Zapien, knee-deep in straw, whistled and chirped in Spanish as he wrapped the Kid's legs in bandages. Clearly enjoying the attention, the big bay colt stood still, save for the occasional pricking of his ears, as though the 1� miles he'd just run had been nothing more than a walk around the shedrow.
Just outside, trainer Scotty Schulhofer sat at a picnic table enjoying a victory celebration with a few members of his staff and Lemon Drop Kid's owners, Jeanne Vance and her husband, Laddie Dance. The 73-year-old Schulhofer marveled at how calmly the Kid had come through such a strenuous test. "It's like he just had a little workout is all," Schulhofer said. "Some horses get pretty wound up or a little tired. With him, it's like nothing happened."
It definitely had been more than just a workout, but Lemon Drop Kid had beaten a talented field with little fuss and minimal urging. In the process he proved that his triumph in the Belmont Stakes in June was no accident, and he decisively stamped his name onto the increasingly crowded ballot for the Eclipse Award, given to the year's best 3-year-old.
Nothing could have seemed more improbable only three months ago. Going into the Belmont—as a 30-1 shot—the Kid had won only one race since his victory in the Futurity last September, and he'd finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby in May. Because favored Charismatic broke down in the stretch, Lemon Drop Kid's surprising win was regarded as little more than a fluke and a footnote to the sad end of another spoiled Triple Crown bid. "It's a shame about Charismatic," says Dance, "but he was a beaten horse in the Belmont." Says Schulhofer, "We didn't worry about it. We knew what kind of horse we had."
Schulhofer gave the Kid the next two months off, and the colt made the most of the time. He grew into the big, rangy body that Dance and Vance had envisioned when they'd bought him for $200,000 at Keeneland in September 1997 "He's much more mature in every way," says Schulhofer.
In Lemon Drop Kid's first race after his layoff, Ecton Park beat him by 5� lengths in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Aug. 8. Schulhofer wasn't worried. Instead, he was encouraged by the Kid's second-place performance on a sloppy track. "He just doesn't like an off track," Schulhofer explained to anyone who asked last week. "The horse couldn't be doing better."
With Charismatic out of the running, the Travers figured to be a coronation for Menifee, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, who had finished on the board in eight of his nine career starts. On Saturday a record crowd of 51,371 sent him off as the 9-5 favorite, with Lemon Drop Kid the second choice at 7-2. Menifee didn't run badly, but he was pinned against the rail most of the way and finished a very nonthreatening third.
Instead of coming from off the pace, as he had done at the Belmont, Lemon Drop Kid set up close to the leaders, never trailing by more than three lengths. Running with a long, smooth stride under jockey Jose Santos, Lemon Drop Kid cruised through the first mile before he began to draw away at the top of the stretch. The only horse who went with him was Vision and Verse, whom the Kid had defeated by a head in the Belmont. They dueled stride for stride through most of the last quarter mile. Santos, however, went to the whip only three times before hand riding Lemon Drop Kid home to a�-length victory. "Around the half-mile pole, I knew it was a sure win," said Santos. " Shane Sellers [aboard Vision and Verse] was motivating his horse, and I was still sitting there with plenty left."
The race to be named top 3-year-old has now become a full cavalry charge likely to be decided at the Breeders' Cup in November. Charismatic is probably still a favorite among the Eclipse Award voters, and there will be at least one more chance for Menifee to bolster his credentials before the Breeders' Cup. But if Lemon Drop finishes the year the same way he did on Saturday, he could win the honor.
One other thing working in his favor is the life change he underwent last week. "He's been a ridgeling," Dance said after the race, meaning one of the Kid's testicles had yet to drop. "Wednesday morning he became a colt, and today he knew it. He proved it to everybody."