04/17/2007 12:00AM

A Derby start within sight

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Bill Kaplan fell in love with Storm in May the moment he saw him at the Ocala 2-year-old sale last April. But Kaplan believed that this gray son of Tiger Ridge would almost certainly command a final bid beyond the price range for him and his girlfriend, Felicity Waugh - until he learned Storm in May was blind in one eye.

Because Storm in May had been blind in his right eye almost since birth, Kaplan and Waugh were able to acquire Storm in May for a mere $16,000. That has turned out to be an absolute steal now that Storm in May has earned his way into the starting lineup for this year's Kentucky Derby. He picked up $200,000 with his second-place finish to Curlin on Saturday in the $1 million Arkansas Derby, giving him enough graded earnings to run even if more than 20 enter the Derby.

"He was on my A-plus list of horses at that sale," said Kaplan, 59. "Felicity and I were planning to take 25 percent of the horse apiece and sell the other 50 percent to partners, although we knew because of the eye we wouldn't be comfortable selling the horse immediately. So we decided not to bid higher than $20,000 in case we wound up keeping him for ourselves, and fortunately the bidding stopped at $16,000."

Kaplan said Storm in May injured his eye three days after birth, then had his eyeball punctured during the second of the two surgeries to repair the original damage.

"Because he's been blind in that eye almost since the day he was born, it just doesn't affect him," said Kaplan. "Naturally I was concerned, and had it been his left eye I wouldn't have bid. A horse needs to see out of the left eye to see the rail. But the right eye you can deal."

It didn't take long for Kaplan to realize his one-eyed horse was not going to cause him any concerns.

"Felicity has been galloping horses for over 20 years, and after getting on him for a couple of days she told me he was the most well-mannered, steadiest, and best-behaved horse she'd ever galloped," said Kaplan, who sold a half-interest in the colt to David and Teresa Palmer.

Storm in May, who does not wear blinkers or other eye protection when he runs, has earned nearly $460,000. His biggest win came in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash at Gulfstream in January. He also has finished third in a pair of Grade 3 turf races, the Palm Beach at Gulfstream and the Tropical Park Derby at Calder.

"He'll do just about anything," Kaplan said. "He's won sprinting and going long, on turf and dirt, and from on and off the pace. His other strong suits are also his courage and what I call his ride-ability. Despite having just one good eye, he's actually won most of his races on the rail or by splitting horses."

Storm in May rallied from seventh in the Arkansas Derby under Juan Leyva, and edged Deadly Dealer for second at 30-1.

"The way he dropped back early in the Arkansas Derby was intentional," Kaplan said. "I told Juan to take a hold of him, let him relax, and make one run, which is exactly what he did."

Leyva will be riding in his first Kentucky Derby. The five-year veteran was Storm in May's regular jockey until he lost the mount after fracturing his elbow last fall at Calder. He and Storm in May were reunited for the first time in nearly six months for the Arkansas Derby.

"Naturally I'm really excited about riding in the Derby, although I'm trying not to dwell on it too much for now," Leyva said.

This year's Derby will officially be the first for Kaplan as well, although he has been at Churchill Downs for the big day before. He helped his friend Harold Rose prepare and saddle Hal's Hope in the 2000 Derby.

"I went through this whole process with Hal's Hope, and I think I learned a few things that will help when preparing my own horse for the race," said Kaplan.

While Storm in May figures to be one of the longest prices on the board, Kaplan said he and his partners are not running in the Derby just because they can.

"Obviously this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us," said Kaplan. "But this horse is improving with every start and he's so consistent. I'm not saying we can win, but he's going to give it his best shot, and I think he genuinely think can get us something out there."