The American Royal in Kansas City is, dependably, one of the country's fine horse shows, and this was one of its vintage years. Still, the star was not one of the horses in competition, but one who was there only to be retired.
This is true despite the fact that Russell Stewart and Airy Hall Plantation's Dear Brutus set a new record of seven feet in the puissance; despite Jolie Richardson's My-My taking another leg on the trophy in the five-gaited stake after retiring its predecessor; and despite the first defeat in a year for Duke of Daylight in the fine harness stake (by Mrs. F. D. Sinclair's Supreme Airs).
The retiring star was King Lee, now almost 18, whose career reads like a Walt Disney movie script, complete to the happy ending of a luxurious old age on rolling, well-kept acres. When he was a colt no one would take King Lee as a gift. He looked ragged as a Bowery panhandler and acted like a hippie on speed. He was a cattle-killer and was not the least interested in learning a decent trade, like being a show horse. His first owner at last succeeded in giving him away, and before too long so did his new one. As the horse got older he became a bit more valuable; once he was traded for a clock-radio and another time he was sold for $60.
But despite this orphan-of-the-storm colthood, he finally was taught, with some difficulty, how to do five gaits, and he made his debut as a 4-year-old and shortly thereafter was a winner at his first major show, the Missouri State Fair. Mrs. E. H. Green, his present owner, remembers seeing him then and also remembers overhearing a lady comment that a horse that could do that much as a junior would soon be used up and never make a stake horse. But King Lee was a stake winner for 14 years.
The horse that was hard to give away became the horse that was hard to beat. In 1958 Kathryn Means sold him to Judy Kaufman for $20,000.05 at Houston's Pin Oak show just before he won the amateur stake, and Trainer Art Simmons took over most of the showing. King Lee still had a habit of running away, and if he had been shown outdoors instead of in a ring his rider would have needed an air-mail stamp to let anyone know where they finally stopped. "He's like a jet engine," was Art's description.
"If you want to know what it feels like to ride King Lee," says 27-year-old Janet Green, whose father bought her the horse in 1964, "I can tell you in one word—power! If you ask him to trot and aren't set, he'll snap your neck."
Time apparently did little to sap the gelding's spirit and power. His winning record is a testimonial to his durability as well as his talent (he has 20 blues from the Missouri State Fair alone). This year, nine years after his first victory at Houston, he was again the amateur champion of the Pin Oak show. Then Janet decided to retire him at Kansas City while he was still on top. "It's so easy to be greedy," she said. "I keep thinking how I would love to go clobber them in Chicago, but I want to retire him before people start whispering it was long overdue." Not every horseman agreed. One, looking at King Lee on the cross-ties, remarked, "Hell, Janet, that horse's legs are in better shape than yours."
But the invitations to a champagne party went out, and presents, baskets of telegrams and letters came in return. Even the regrets were addressed to "Dear King Lee." Janet put on the gold brocade coat that she had had made especially for showing King Lee—and that everyone agreed should have been retired years before the horse. The buttons were off the sleeves; Janet had refused to replace them, fearing bad luck.
So the drums rolled and everyone applauded and Janet and King Lee went into the ring for the ceremony. And King Lee promptly ran away. Janet had no time for the tears everyone expected but had to cope instead. King Lee's saddle was replaced with a blanket of roses, and Janet led him to the gate for the last time. Actually, it was a little hard to tell who was leading whom. Janet's feet touched the ground about once every four strides. "I felt just like a yo-yo," she said.