ELMONT, N.Y. -- As rain pelted his barn roof yesterday morning at Belmont Park, Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid, managed a grim smile and said: "He prepped for the big races in the mud. I guess he'll do it again today."
And so he did. Six hours later, in the slop on a gray Long Island afternoon, Lemon Drop Kid responded with familiar disdain for the surface, finishing a dull fifth in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup.
As "Lemon Drop" -- that's what his Maryland owners Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance call him -- practically skidded around this historic oval, a former claimer named River Keen scored an easy victory against one of the year's most accomplished fields.
Remember Charismatic? He was the claimer everybody talked about early in the year. He rose from obscurity to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
(A claimer is a horse who competes in a claiming race, in which all horses are for sale for a set price. The best horses usually don't compete in them.)
Meet River Keen. He is the claimer everybody is talking about this fall. He won the Grade I Woodward Stakes here three weeks ago and now, after winning the Grade I Gold Cup, must be taken seriously as a top contender in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Gulfstream Park.
And River Keen, a 7-year-old Irish-bred, defeated Behrens, the top-ranked horse in the country, after being "dead lame" the night before, according to trainer Bob Baffert.
Speaking by phone from California, where he saddled horses at Santa Anita Park, Baffert said River Keen had developed an infection in his right-hind hoof, the result of a crack in the hoof wall.
"We almost scratched this horse," Baffert said.
Ian McKinlay, an equine-foot specialist, worked on the foot for hours, patching the crack yesterday morning and gluing on a rubber shoe. Running his 36th race -- and 10th for his current owner, Hugo Reynolds, who claimed him in December for $100,000 -- River Keen showed no sign of distress at any point in the 1 1/4-mile race.
He stalked the leader, Back Ring Al early, claimed the lead entering the far turn and drew away down the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths in 2 minutes 1.40 seconds.
Behrens, the 4-5 favorite, surged past Almutawakel by a head at the wire for second. A winner of two Grade I and two Grade II stakes this year, Behrens broke sluggishly, raced along the rail in sixth and then swung wide for his splashy charge to the wire.
"He showed me that he's courageous," said his trainer, H. James Bond, who practically guaranteed victory in the days leading to the race. "He didn't like that surface at all, and he still got second. They won't beat him in the Breeders' Cup."
Despite a top speed figure that matched Behrens', River Keen was the bettors' fifth choice and paid $26 to win. The exacta with Behrens returned $52, the trifecta with Almutawakel third $146. Almutawakel, the 7-2 third choice, won the $4 million Dubai World Cup in March for his Arab owners, the sheiks of Dubai.
After winning the Belmont and Travers (after prepping in the mud in the Peter Pan and Jim Dandy, respectively), Lemon Drop Kid, who is 3, never threatened in his first race against older horses.
"He still doesn't like it," said Jinny Vance, referring to the slop. She and her husband own Taylor's Purchase Farm in Baltimore County.
"He slips and slides in it," Schulhofer said. "He's not happy, not comfortable. Throw this one out and go onto the next one."
The next one is the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Although Belmont's two-day showcase of racing is dubbed Breeders' Cup Preview Weekend, what really did it preview? The favorites faltered in each of the five Grade I stakes.
On Saturday, More Than Ready and Yagli succumbed in the Champagne Stakes and Turf Classic Invitational, respectively. Yesterday, 2-5 favorite Silverbulletday finished second in the $500,000 Beldame, and the 7-5 Darling My Darling finished second in the $400,000 Frizette.
In her first race against older fillies and mares, the 3-year-old Silverbulletday trailed the winner, Beautiful Pleasure, the entire 1 1/8 miles. The 2-1 Beautiful Pleasure, who is 4, led gate to wire, cruising home 4 3/4 lengths in front.
In the 1 1/16-mile Frizette, the 2-year-old fillies Surfside and Darling My Darling waged a dramatic battle. After losing the lead in the stretch, the 9-5 Surfside and jockey Pat Day battled back despite being squeezed against the rail. They prevailed by a head.
The race resembled the 1994 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, when Surfside's mother, Flanders, lost the lead in the stretch to Serena's Song, but surged back along the rail to win -- by a head.