Blue Grass `Lemon's' acid test

Vance, Dance keep Derby fingers crossed

April 08, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- This is where it all began for Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance, right here in the heart of horse country where they met 34 years ago -- appropriately enough -- at a horse sale.

And this is where it could all begin anew Saturday when their horse, Lemon Drop Kid, competes in what is shaping up as the year's toughest Kentucky Derby prep, the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Lemon Drop Kid, the cool dude with the equally cool name, could launch Vance and Dance -- yes, that's right; she kept her maiden name -- on the journey of a lifetime, an exuberant trip west on Interstate 64 to Louisville and Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

"We're excited and nervous," said Laddie Dance, a retired auctioneer for Fasigipton, a job he held for 47 years. "You have to be. It's a pretty big event for us. We're not ac customed to this."

Although Jeanne G. Vance -- that's Jinny -- is listed as the owner of Lemon Drop Kid, she and Laddie are partners, as they have been since meeting at a saddlehorse sale in 1965 in Lexington.

(That is, except for the 10 years they were divorced. They remarried five years ago. "Nobody else would have us," Vance said.)

They started buying thoroughbreds in the late 1960s, and they figure they've owned nearly 100. Running in the colors of their Taylor's Purchase Farm in Sparks, Bear Hunt competed in the 1984 Kentucky Derby. He injured a tendon during the race, finished 18th out of 20 and was retired.

"We've had moderate success, but nothing like Lemon Drop Kid," Vance said. "You're fortunate if you have one like him in your life. So for us, this is it."

They also own Bugatti, slated to race Saturday in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. But Lemon Drop Kid, which they bought for $200,000 at the 1997 Keeneland September yearling sale, is their Derby horse -- if, indeed, they have a Derby horse.

They'll find out in the Blue Grass against one of the most talented fields of 3-year-olds assembled for a Derby prep in years. Seven of the eight horses expected to be entered today could win this 1 1/8-mile race and not raise an eyebrow.

Vicar, Wondertross and Cat Thief finished one-two-three in the Florida Derby. Kimberlite Pipe won the Louisiana Derby and Pineaff the Tampa Bay Derby, each with a late charge, the kind that makes an owner dream of roses.

Menifee finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby, but his trainer, Elliott Walden, continues to tout him as a Derby contender. That's six possible Blue Grass winners right there.

The one with seemingly no chance is Prado's Landing, who broke in at Laurel Park before joining Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing Inc. in Dubai. Prado's Landing hasn't competed in an official race since winning a 5 1/2-furlong maiden event July 30 in Maryland.

That leaves Lemon Drop Kid, a bay son of Kingmambo. Vance named him after a champion fine-harness horse (a show horse that pulls a buggy) she remembered from her Michigan childhood. She didn't discover until later that Lemon Drop Kid was also a character in a Damon Runyon story.

"But the name kind of suits him," Vance said. "He's a cool customer. He eats. He sleeps. Nothing bothers him."

And he wins. Lemon Drop Kid has won three races, including the Grade I Futurity last September at Belmont. He has finished worse than third only once -- when he bled from the lungs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and struggled home fifth.

"Scotty told us he wouldn't trade this horse for anybody's," said Laddie, referring to Scotty Schulhofer, the colt's Hall of Fame trainer. "That's going out on a limb a little bit for Scotty. He's usually pretty low-key."

Schulhofer even said this: "I think he's probably as good a horse as I've ever trained."

And Schulhofer has trained four champions (Mac Diarmida, Smile, Fly So Free and Rubiano) and one Belmont winner (Colonial Affair).

Of Lemon Drop Kid's competition in the Bluegrass, Schulhofer said: "I think he can beat these horses. He's as good a 3-year-old as I've seen, to be truthful."

But Lemon Drop Kid has raced only once this year, easily winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Feb. 27 at Gulfstream Park. Schulhofer and the Vance-Dance team wanted it that way.

"He's a May 28 foal; I didn't want to do too much too soon," Schulhofer said. "He'll be fit enough. I'm not worried about that."

Vance said it's a long season of prestigious races -- the Belmont, the Travers, the Breeders' Cup Classic. You want to have a horse for those races, too, she said. But what about the Kentucky Derby, the one race in this country that can turn an owner to mush?

Said Vance, without a moment's hesitation: "You bet your butt I'd like to go to the Derby."

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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