12/18/2002 12:00AM

Gambolati couldn't pass on Buck

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PHILADELPHIA- The colt showed up a relative unknown on the first Saturday of April in 1985. He would return on the last Monday of May as the most famous horse in the world.

Spend a Buck and the new Garden State Park became almost synonymous. The horse appeared five days after the track opened. The track, desperate to become important, became relevant because of the horse.

When it was announced that Spend a Buck died at age 20 in Brazil on Nov. 24, from an allergic reaction to penicillin for treatment of a cut above an eye, it was hard not to rewind 17 years.

I am reasonably confident I was the first person in the United States to realize Spend a Buck was the fastest 3-year-old of his generation. I had just created a set of Beyer Speed Figures for the new track after its first few days, and they showed that Spend a Buck ran a ridiculously high Beyer in the Cherry Hill Mile. Then, he did it again in the Garden State Stakes.

If he made the lead, there was no way Spend a Buck was going to lose the Kentucky Derby. He did and he didn't.

His 5 1/4-length winning Derby margin is the biggest of the last 56 years. He went fast early and kept running fast all the way. No rival ever got close.

The Derby win set him up for a shot at a $2 million bonus for any horse that could sweep what was termed the Garden State Challenge. The four-race series ended with the $1 million Jersey Derby on Memorial Day. Spend a Buck won that race, the $600,000 first prize, and the $2 million bonus. He won it because Laffit Pincay wouldn't let him lose it.

If anybody ever tells you riders don't matter, tell them to watch the replay of the stretch drive of that race. Pincay, who has now won almost 9,500 races in his career, said it was the most pressure-packed ride of his life. By the way, has anybody ever seen Pincay lose a photo?

Spend a Buck won Horse of the Year in 1985. He won 10 of 15 starts and earned $4.2 million. He set two track records at Garden State and another at Monmouth Park. He was all speed, all the time.

In the spring of 1985, however, Spend a Buck and his connections were mired in controversy. After the Derby, owner Dennis Diaz and trainer Cam Gambolati decided to skip the Preakness and run for the bonus in New Jersey. By the reaction, you would have thought the world ended.

The purists couldn't believe any owner would pass on a chance to win the Triple Crown. Back then, however, there was no bonus for winning the Triple Crown so the decision wasn't that difficult. The very next year, a Triple Crown bonus of $5 million was initiated to keep the top 3-year-olds on the classics trail and away from Garden State.

Garden State has since closed and no horse has been able to win the Triple Crown bonus.

It was Spend a Buck and his people who forced the Triple Crown to change with the times. Tradition only counts for so much. Money matters more.

Gambolati now lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla. He trains 12 horses.

"I have some nice 3-year-olds,'' Gambolati said.

Gambolati said he knows it's "almost impossible" to get another horse like Spend a Buck. But he's still trying.

"I'm still at the track seven days a week at 4:30 a.m.,'' Gambolati said.

The bonus was very nice. The money spent well. The Derby, however, is forever.

"No matter where you go, there's only one race that people ask about,'' Gambolati said. "It's some memory.''

The bonus choice, however, would remain the same.

"When we went back to Garden State, it was chaos because it was controversy,'' Gambolati said. "Will Farish" - who would stand Spend a Buck at Lane's End Farm - "said, 'go with the money.'"

So, they did.

What if they hadn't?

"I would have won a Triple Crown,'' Gambolati said, without hesitation.