NEW YORK — It will be tough to tell who’s more comfortable at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, trainer Bill Kaplan or his horse, Imawildandcrazyguy.
Kaplan will be surrounded by family and friends on his first trip home in years, while his gray gelding has given every indication he will enjoy running 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park.
“It’s exciting to be back home,” said the 61-year-old Kaplan, who moved to South Florida more than 30 years ago and is based at Calder Race Course. “And to have a horse in the Belmont Stakes, the test of the champion? A thrill.”
Preakness winner Curlin is the 6-5 morning-line favorite in the field of seven 3-year-olds, but Imawildandcrazyguy is worth a look at 20-1 — the longest shot in the group along with Slew’s Tizzy.
Kaplan’s horse ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby, passing 16 rivals in the final half mile and finishing a half-length shy of Curlin for third behind Street Sense and Hard Spun.
“He’s never shown he’s tired, never takes a deep breath. He’ll love the Belmont distance,” Kaplan said. “It was great to go to the Derby, but the Belmont is bigger for me. This is home. And I think we have a chance.”
Kaplan knows all about taking chances. He’s been doing it most of his life — as a soldier, accountant, flight instructor, pilot, entrepreneur, horse owner and, finally, a trainer.
“This is what I was meant to be,” Kaplan said. “I’m loving every minute of it.”
Kaplan grew up in Brooklyn and finished high school unsure of his future. Along the way, he became a racing fan — “my uncle dragged me to the races when I was 14” — but was drafted into the Army in 1966 at the age of 20.
He chose officers candidate school, rose to the rank of lieutenant and was sent off to Vietnam. He was there during the Tet Offensive, when he led 40 troops into battle and was shot in the foot. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
After his discharge, he earned an accounting degree at Long Island University, took a job with Arthur Andersen and knew he needed a new line of work. Quickly.
Flying lessons followed, and he enjoyed it so much he became an instructor. Then, Kaplan made another career choice. He started a small commuter airline called Air South and began flying tourists from Miami to Walt Disney World in Orlando in the late 1970s. A financial success for sure, but when airline fares were deregulated Kaplan left the business and turned to what he loved best: horses.
He bought his first horse in 1980 and became a trainer a few years later.
“I fell totally in love with the horse. It’s such a joy to work with these young thoroughbreds,” said Kaplan, who at one time had three of the eight horses in his stable on the Derby trail. “Until this year, I’d never come close to running in these big races.”
He’s here now, and with a horse who has quite a story of his own.
It began the day the gray horse arrived at Kaplan’s barn last year, named Cupcake Melee.
“He walks out to the track standing on his rear legs, drops the rider and runs free for three miles,” said Kaplan, who had purchased him for $28,000 at the Ocala 2-year-olds-in-training sale for Michael Eigner and Lewis Pell.
“After we collect him, he rears up and strikes a person in the mouth. Then I get hold of him and he pins me against the wall. And this is all when he’s on a mild tranquilizer! As soon as I get free, I run to the phone and call the owners and tell them ‘we’ve got to geld this horse now to calm him down or else he’s going to hurt someone! And by the way, change the name. He’s no cupcake.’”
With a new name and a new outlook, Imawildandcrazyguy has paid huge dividends. The son of Wild Event, out of Frosty Cupcake, has six top-three finishes in 12 races for a bankroll of $315,775.
Eigner, the retired director of Tribune Broadcasting, and Pell, friends with Kaplan since they were kids, believe Imawildandcrazyguy is a perfect fit for the Belmont.
“We’re going against some of the best horses in the country, and if this horse has a shot, this is the race for him,” Eigner said. “Bill has just been great in bringing this horse around.”
And a few others, including Storm in May, who finished 16th in the Derby, and Drums of Thunder, who may be his best 3-year-old but has been sidelined with an infection.
Perhaps best of all, Kaplan bought the trio for a total of $91,000.
The last time Kaplan showed up at Belmont was 1995, when he sent out Seacliff to finish 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
He can’t wait to find out what Imawildandcrazyguy can do against Curlin, Hard Spun and the filly Rags to Riches. And if his gelding is in contention heading into the Belmont stretch?
“I just hope I can hold the binoculars steady if he gets the lead,” he said.