ELMONT, N.Y. - Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid, swore he didn't get excited, not in the least. He had to be the only one.
In what could turn out to be the race of the year, Lemon Drop Kid battled Behrens stride for stride, bob for bob, down the stretch yesterday in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park.
With former Maryland jockey Edgar Prado riding furiously, Lemon Drop Kid prevailed by a head in the rich late-afternoon sunlight to solidify his claim on Horse of the Year honors.
The gorgeous bay colt, a 4-year-old son of Kingmambo, has won four major stakes in a row and propelled his Maryland owners on their dream of a lifetime: owning the best racehorse in North America.
Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance, who own Taylor's Purchase Farm in Sparks, showed more excitement than Schulhofer but still were surprisingly composed after winning one of the most prestigious races in the country.
"You're always nervous," Vance said. "I feel this was his best race because he fought. He fought hard. He's got a heart as big as he is, and he showed it."
As Lemon Drop Kid and Behrens matched strides down the stretch, Schulhofer, the mild-mannered Hall of Fame trainer, watched in quiet confidence. He has said for more than a year that Lemon Drop Kid is the best horse he's trained. Lemon Drop, as his handlers call him, has proved him right.
"Today was my most relaxing day in racing," said Schulhofer, 74. "I wasn't concerned at any point. I didn't get excited in the stretch either."
The stretch duel was merely the final dramatic act of a race compelling from the start.
The five horses broke side by side and raced that way from the gate into the backstretch. (On Belmont's huge 1 1/2 -mile oval, races of 1 1/8 miles require only one turn. Horses break from a shoot directly into the backstretch.)
Behrens and the California speed horse Skimming inched in front, and Lemon Drop Kid dropped back to last - but never far back. As the field drove into the turn, the foes bunched up five-across again.
Prado had urged Lemon Drop Kid earlier than he had wanted, but he had seen Behrens and his wily jockey, Jerry Bailey, strive for the lead along the rail. Prado said later that he didn't want to let Behrens gain a clear advantage.
Lemon Drop Kid stuck his nose in front around the turn, but Skimming was just inside him, and Behrens just inside Skimming. As the trio straightened out for home, Behrens on the rail and Lemon Drop Kid at his throat - a head in front - left Skimming in their dust.
For the final quarter-mile, it was a two-horse race.
Bailey whipped Behrens and Prado slapped Lemon Drop Kid - both left-handed - as the horses drew from deep reserves of heart and muscle. At 6 years old and thought by many to be over the hill, Behrens ran gallantly but could not snatch back the short lead from Lemon Drop.
As they neared the wire Prado gave up whipping and rode his colt with his body, his hands scrubbing up and down the colt's glistening neck. Prado couldn't have encouraged him better, and Lemon Drop couldn't have given him more.
"My horse just won't let anyone pass once he gets to the front," Prado said.
As the 3-5 favorite, Lemon Drop Kid paid $3.40 to win. The exacta with the 3-1 Behrens returned $7.50. Because of the five-horse field, there was no trifecta betting. Gander (41-1), Skimming (3-1) and Ecton Park (10-1) followed the first two across the wire. Lemon Drop's winning time was 1 minute, 50.53 seconds.
Behrens' trainer, H. James Bond, praised his senior citizen.
"It's nice to know the old man isn't washed up yet," Bond said.
Added Bailey, Behrens' jockey: "My horse ran a huge race. He had to fight the whole way and never had a breather."
Lemon Drop Kid will race twice more before retiring to stud - the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 14 at Belmont and the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.
Yesterday, he probably clinched an Eclipse Award as outstanding older horse. Now, Horse of the Year is his for the taking.
"In my mind he's Horse of the Year," Schulhofer said. "But he'll do whatever it takes to get it. If he's got to win two more races, he will."