Updated on 09/16/2011 9:50AM

Spend a Buck took a road not taken


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The decision to pass the Preakness with the 1985 Kentucky Derby winner, Spend a Buck, in favor of the Jersey Derby and a $2 million bonus was quite controversial, the colt's trainer agrees. But Cam Gambolati points out that in the long run, the Triple Crown concept was strengthened by the introduction of a $5 million bonus that remains a key element of the classics package today.

News of the recent death of Spend a Buck in Brazil, where he had been standing at stud, touched off memories of one of the fastest horses of our time.

"Eternal Prince was another very quick 3-year-old that season," Gambolati said from his barn at Miami's Calder Race Course. "He was an impressive winner of the Wood Memorial, and the handicappers were predicting a meltdown in the Kentucky Derby when the two colts faced off.

"I thought we had an edge with the experience of our rider, Angel Cordero Jr.," Gambolati said. "He understood we preferred avoiding one of those head-to-head confrontations. He was ready for the break, and in a short time opened a commanding lead. Spend a Buck went the first six furlongs in 1:09 and change, and I said he was going too fast. But Angel rode with confidence, and [Spend a Buck] won by five lengths. He went the mile-and-a-quarter in a tick over two minutes, which, at the time, was the third-fastest Derby."

It was then that the controversy began. Most Kentucky Derby winners headed for Pimlico and the Preakness. However, Robert Brennan, then CEO of Garden State Park, linked several of his 3-year-old stakes with the Kentucky Derby in a bonus arrangement. If Spend a Buck won the $1 million Jersey Derby on May 27 that year, he would earn an additional $2 million. However, he would be unable for practical reasons to make the Preakness on May 18.

After two days of discussion, Spend a Buck's owner, Dennis Diaz, announced that his colt would run in New Jersey. Spend a Buck won, too, but in a photo with Creme Fraiche, who went on to capture the Belmont Stakes. It was later announced that Spend a Buck had been syndicated by Lane's End Farm in Kentucky for $14 million.

Spend a Buck bid his farewell to racing with an outstanding performance in the Grade 1 Monmouth Handicap, setting a track record of 1:46.80 for the nine furlongs.

"The first time I saw Spend a Buck was early in 1984 shortly after he turned 2, at Dennis Diaz's farm near Tampa," Gambolati recalled. "I remember being impressed by his size and strength."

In May of 1983, on a trip to Kentucky, Diaz, seeking to stock his new Hunter Farm near Tampa, purchased a broodmare named Belle de Jour. In the same paddock where he found Belle de Jour, Diaz's eye was caught by a bay colt who was Belle de Jour's son by Buckaroo. Diaz, who had agreed to pay $62,500 for Belle de Jour, obtained the yearling colt for an additional $12,500. It was Spend a Buck, who was voted Horse of the Year in 1985.