LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Cover your right eye.
Now imagine being loaded into a starting gate alongside the best thoroughbreds in the land. The gate flings open and just ahead and to either side, 19 other horses are jostling for position as the first turn draws near. Then add 100,000 or so railbirds in full roar, throwing off as many decibels as a jet engine on takeoff.
That’s how Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will look and sound to a long gray colt with one good eye named Storm in May.
“He’s been that way since a week after his birth,” trainer Bill Kaplan said Friday morning as a thick mist blanketed the backstretch at Churchill Downs.
A few yards away, the colt bent over and nibbled at the grass, his right ear cocked to track nearby sounds like a radar.
“The blessing is that he doesn’t know he’s different than anyone else,” Kaplan said.
The betting public does, though, which helps explain why a horse that’s won four times and finished in the money in 12 of 13 career races will go off at 30-1 odds. History isn’t on Storm in May’s side, either.
Twice in the last 25 years, one-eyed thoroughbreds have cracked the Derby lineup and crossed the wire covered more in dirt than glory. Cassaleria finished 13th in 1982 and Pollard’s Vision shuffled home 17th in 2004.
“I’m one of those people who don’t believe anything happens by chance,” said Kent Hersman, a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army who bred and trained Storm in May before selling him as a 2-year-old. “So maybe there’s somebody out there that needs to see this horse do well.
“From time to time, everybody takes a bad hit in life. Storm is that inspiration that says, ‘Get back up and give it your best shot.’ Because if nothing else,” Hersman added, “he’ll teach you to enjoy the trip.”
And it’s been a remarkable enough journey already.
There were 34,642 horses foaled in 2004, and who knows how many of those were pointed down the road that ends at the finish line of Churchill Downs.
Storm in May, a grandson of Storm Cat and a great-grandson of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, was born with a pedigree worthy of a Derby horse, but that wasn’t all. A corneal ulcer in his right eye required an operation almost immediately after birth.
That surgery went well enough, but several days later, a veterinarian trying to clear up a complication inadvertently punctured the eye. The only consolation was that the vision in Storm in May’s left eye was perfect. “And as long as he knows where the rail is,” Kaplan explained, “he won’t get pushed into it or jump it. The rest of the trip he can figure out for himself.”
Just about anybody else would have given up on ever racing the colt then. Hersman, though, had bought the mare who carried Storm in May and used a technique called “imprint training” on the foal from birth. The training method stresses touching, stroking and constantly soothing the young horse right out of the womb to familiarize it with being handled and thus accelerate the learning curve.
Hersman knew there was no recouping his investment at a yearling sale, no matter how good Storm in May’s bloodlines or temperament. So he sent the horse to an Ocala, Fla., training school run by John and Jill Stephens who, unbeknownst to Hersman, were already training a promising young colt named Barbaro. It was the first, but not the last time Storm in May followed in Barbaro’s footsteps.
“As little omens go, we’ve got the same barn he had and Storm in May sleeps just two stalls over from Barbaro’s,” said Teresa Palmer, who along with husband, David, owns a half-share in the horse. “Then we found out about the training connection.”
So did Kaplan, who called the Stephens’ with just one question: Was Storm in May that good?
“Maybe not,” Kaplan recalled Stephens saying. “But he’ll get you there.”
With that endorsement and a few workouts upon which to base his judgment, Kaplan forked over $16,000 for the 2-year-old horse, then phoned the Palmers on Derby Day a year ago to offer them a share.
Kaplan told them he was keeping 25 percent and another 25 percent was held by his girlfriend and sometimes-exercise rider Felicity Waugh. He knew the Kaplans had a fondness for gray colts and touted the price.