The Favorite

Curlin, barely the top pick on the morning line at 7-2, draws No. 2 post position for Saturday's race

Kentucky Derby

May 03, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- -- At the annual dinner for Kentucky Derby trainers Tuesday night, an equine transport company held a drawing for a free plane ride.

Bill Kaplan, a Florida trainer with two Derby horses, was holding court with reporters at his barn early yesterday at Churchill Downs when a representative from the transport company informed him that he had won the drawing.

Kaplan smiled and exclaimed, "I can't believe how my luck is running."

A 61-year-old Derby rookie, he is on the roll of his racing life.

If you're a bettor looking for a good-karma Derby play, here's your guy.

One of Kaplan's Derby horses is blind in one eye. The other was such a bad actor that Kaplan named him Imawildandcrazyguy. Kaplan bought them as 2-year-olds for a combined $44,000, making them red-dot specials in racing's multimillion-dollar world.

What were the chances that both would end up running in America's greatest race?

"I'm a trained CPA, but I can't calculate those [long] odds," Kaplan snorted.

He certainly wasn't contemplating the Derby when he bought the horses in 2006 at an Ocala, Fla., sale where bargains and common horseflesh dominate. But as much as the Derby is about mint juleps, rose garlands and the world's best horses, it is also about average folks daring to dream. A few make it to the race every year, and one even occasionally leaves a mark.

Kaplan's is a classic case. He used to own and operate a small-time commuter airline, flying prop planes full of hotel guests in and out of Disney World. Then he caught the racing bug. He has owned and trained horses in South Florida since the early 1980s, seldom managing more than a dozen or so at a time.

He is from the sport's cavernous middle class, so removed from the Derby that it wasn't even on his radar. But now, he's here with a pair of horses.

"Everyone is asking how I did this," Kaplan said. "My answer is either I'm really good at spotting good horses in sales, or I got lucky this time. I'm starting to give the latter a lot of thought."

Kaplan buys 2-year-olds because he can watch them run before he shells out any money; he says that gives him a chance to identify bargains and horses who might run better than their modest pedigrees predict.

There was no doubt why a colt named Storm in May was available for just $16,000 at the Ocala sale. A striking gray, he had been foaled with a right eye condition, and when surgeons went to repair it, they slashed the eye, leaving the horse unable to see out of it.

Being one-eyed doesn't keep a horse from running fast - like humans, horses naturally compensate for partial vision loss - but historians can recall only two other one-eyed Derby entries: Cassaleria ran 13th in 1982 and Pollard's Vision ran 17th three years ago.

Storm in May might fare better, even though he is 30-1 on the Derby morning line released yesterday. A consistent runner, he has finished in the money in 12 of 13 career starts, earning more than $450,000. In his most recent race, he finished second at 30-1 in the Arkansas Derby.

Kaplan, who buys and trains horses for other owners as well as himself, bought Storm in May knowing he would have a hard time getting anyone else to invest in a one-eyed horse. He later sold a half-interest to a friend.

"The horse doesn't know he's blind in one eye. He thinks his vision is normal," Kaplan said. "He is so smart and well-behaved. He just has class."

No one said that a year ago about Kaplan's other Derby horse. The colt was named Cupcake Melee when Kaplan bought him at Ocala for $28,000, but the animal was anything but a cupcake - he dropped riders, muscled grooms and pinned Kaplan against a wall. Kaplan petitioned The Jockey Club to have his name changed to Imawildandcrazyguy and then had the animal gelded.

"He's been a lot better behaved since," Kaplan said.

Imawildandcrazyguy, a 50-1 shot on the Derby morning line, has also been campaigned hard, making 11 starts between July 2006 and March 2007. He hasn't fared as well as Storm in May, winning twice and earning some $215,000, but his late-running style fits the Derby.

"He's a big freight train," Kaplan said. "He isn't as quick as some of these others, but they'll be tired at the end and he'll still be running."

The horse didn't qualify for the Derby until earlier this week, when another qualifier dropped out - yet another lucky stroke that has gone Kaplan's way lately.

"With the way things are going for me, my horses will be running one-two down the stretch," he said. "If that happens, just count me out. That'll be too much excitement for me. I'll be dead."

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