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Only four years ago the triumphant fine harness horse on this week's cover, The Lemon Drop Kid, entered an auction ring in St. Louis and changed his destiny. As he burst into the arena, catching a wheel on the gatepost, the horsemen gathered to appraise him nodded sagely; what they had heard was true. The Lemon Drop Kid, spectacular as he looked, was as wild as a March hare—which was why he was up for sale.
As Lemon worked that day he did more things wrong than right, and the bidding was slow. It finally crept up to $5,500 and there it stayed. The auctioneer pleaded and wheedled, but the high bid made by Irene Zane, manager of the Sunnyslope Farms, held. Crushed, Floyd Shofner, the horse's breeder and owner, took the microphone and flatly announced, "No sale. I'll take him back to California before I let him go at that price. Why, $7,500 would be rock bottom." Irene Zane looked across the crowd at Jay Utz, Sunnyslope's trainer, who raised his eyebrows in question. Both trainer and manager turned and looked at Mr. R. B. Christy, the farm's owner, who was seated in the stands. Christy looked at the rafters, then slowly nodded yes.
By any proved standard, Mr. Christy's gamble was a long one. Back in Puente, California, where Lemon was foaled, he started life as a disappointment. Not only was he a washed-out beige in color, but he had a blemish from the way he had been carried. Floyd Shofner, for the first time in his 25 years of breeding, dropped a foal from the futurity. The son of Cameo Kirby and Miss Chatterbox was a dud.
But appearances were deceiving. By the time Lemon was a yearling Shofner and his daughter Ella Mae looked again and saw something highly explosive in the youngster. His color had deepened—he was now a rich, golden chestnut, with a flaxen mane and tail—and his motion was as brilliant as his coat. The blemish had disappeared. He had been named Master Chatter at his birth, but his appearance was so arresting that the Shofners felt a new name was needed. Damon Runyon provided it—The Lemon Drop Kid. As Runyon readers will recall, The Lemon Drop Kid laughed last.
Naming him, however, turned out to be a far easier task than breaking him. Lemon had few law-abiding inclinations. In fact, he left a trail of broken buggies and jog carts that would have dismayed a man of lesser faith. But, under Trainer Marty Mueller, Shofner's trust was justified. As a 3-year-old shown by Mueller, Lemon was a sensation. "Not as far as his manners went...," Mueller recalls, "but there was that something about him that made you sure you had your hands on the best in the world every time you touched him.... He's a horse that is always trying to do better."
But before Lemon could go on trying to be better, Mueller departed to go into business for himself, and the Shofners were left once more with their problem. Their new trainer was afraid of Lemon, so the horse quickly reverted to his earlier, lunging habits. He was too wild in his ways for Ella Mae in ladies' classes, so Shofner faced the cold facts: the gelding whose looks and way of going caused such rare tingles of excitement was so full of the devil that few men dared to sit behind him. Shofner decided to sell.
So when R. B. Christy made his purchase in St. Louis and took Lemon home to Kansas, Trainer Jay Utz faced the challenge of finding the key to a great performer who was used to having his own way. Besides his wild lunges, Lemon also had the unpleasant habit of grabbing one side of the bit. Jay set patiently to work. When the weather was bad he rode him. "It was like being on a horse that was trying to climb a ladder," he recalls. Most of the time, however, he drove—for, despite the advice of experts who claimed that Lemon's mane and tail should be trimmed so he could be shown as a walk-trot, Jay was determined to keep him in fine harness. "He's not a horse you can force," he explained. "You've got to talk him out of things.... He sure keeps me thinking."
Then came the spring, and Lemon, 5 years old and no longer a junior, was ready for open classes. It was decided to go to Topeka and discover if Lemon behaved as well in company as he did in his own backyard.
The debut was agonizing. Once there, they barely got him into the ring. It was one of those nightmare evenings where everything went wrong. Lemon stood shaking in the shafts with an advanced case of stage fright. His tail switch slipped and had to be retied. Then the overcheck broke and there was time only for hasty repairs with a shoelace before the class was called. But, once in the ring, everything was right. Lemon, as the saying goes, went as if the ground weren't good enough for him, and he has been going that way ever since.
Undefeated in championship classes since 1955, Lemon, now 8, faces more years of triumph and glory. In fact, some enthusiastic horsemen predict that he won't be defeated for another four or five years. Once, two years ago, he was placed second in an open class, a decision so questionable that the audience booed the winning horse and fellow exhibitors chastised the judge.