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The Buck Didn't Stop

Spend a Buck (blue shadow roll) shot to the lead and sped on to win the Kentucky Derby in near record time

Early in 1984, Dennis Diaz nominated his unraced and untested 2-year-old, Spend a Buck, to a select sale in Ocala, Fla. for juveniles in training. Diaz had paid only $12,500 for the colt after watching him romp around a field in Kentucky as a yearling in 1983, and now he was hoping to make a quick buck on the horse.

So an Ocala veterinarian paid a call on the colt at Diaz's 85-acre Hunter Farm in Odessa, Fla. to decide whether Spend a Buck should be selected for the sale. "The vet came out and took him out of the stall and examined him completely," Diaz's wife, Linda, recalls. "He didn't say anything to us, but he turned him down for the sale."

That rejection left Diaz despondent. He had retired from the insurance and real estate business in 1981 at the age of 38 after suffering a severe case of burnout, and now he was burned up. "Dennis was just moping along," Linda says. One day he was moping past Spend a Buck's stall on the farm when, in a fit of pique, he kicked the wire-mesh webbing on the colt's stall and exclaimed, "If somebody walked by now and gave me $30,000 for this horse, he'd be gone!"

Linda Diaz was telling the story and laughing about it early in the evening last Saturday. "We've thanked [the veterinarian] every day since," she said. "The fairy tale came true, didn't it?"

Indeed it did. An hour or so earlier, under blue Kentucky skies and over a racetrack nearly as hard and fast as nearby Interstate 264, Spend a Buck had inherited an unexpectedly easy lead and simply scorched Churchill Downs with the third-fastest Kentucky Derby ever run. With the fastest opening mile in Derby history, a breathtaking 1:34⅘ he chewed up and spit out his closest pursuers, Chiefs Crown and Tank's Prospect, and then clippety-clopped through a final quarter in :25[2/5] to win the 111th running of the classic by 5¼ lengths. His final time of 2:00[1/5] was only four-fifths of a second off Secretariat's 1973 Derby record of 1:59[2/5] and it was a mere tick behind Northern Dancer's second-fastest clocking of two minutes flat in 1964.

It was thus that this diminutive but neatly balanced and attractive bay colt—the first stakes winner sired by Buckaroo, a son of Buckpasser—turned what was supposed to be the most hotly competitive Derby in years into a personal tour de force. The fire-sale yearling and Ocala-sale reject suddenly became worth an estimated $11 million for stud syndication, with several Kentucky breeders making Diaz offers for the colt. For his part, Diaz was folding a worrisome new wrinkle into the brows of traditionalists who regard the annual quest for a winner of the Triple Crown as something akin to a search for the Holy Grail.

Spend a Buck could earn a $2 million bonus simply by winning the 1-mile Jersey Derby at Garden State Park on May 27, a race obviously at his mercy. Diaz said he may bypass the May 18 Preakness to go for the big bucks in Jersey, thus forfeiting the colt's chances to win the Triple Crown, a feather in the forelock of any potential studhorse. "There's no way we're gonna run in both races," said Cam Gambolati, Spend a Buck's trainer.

"We're in the business to win purses," said Diaz. "I think the business of making studs may have gotten out of hand." Nonetheless, on Monday Diaz was leaning toward the Preakness.

The only thing that got out of hand on Saturday was Spend a Buck as he pounced like a cat out of the gate and dashed quite alone to the lead, with jockey Angel Cordero Jr. all wrapped up and bent over in a headlock in an effort to restrain him. The colt scooted through an opening quarter mile in :23 and led by a length and a half as he passed under the wire for the first time. That was the beginning and, essentially, the end of the 1985 Derby. Asked later when he thought he had the race won, Cordero quipped, "After the wire."

"The first time or the second time?" someone asked.

"Both times," Cordero said.

Diaz has been something of a front-runner himself all his life. He set so torrid a pace in real estate and insurance in his native Tampa that he wilted under the pressure four years ago. "I just got burned out," he says. "I tried to stay in it and keep myself going, but I just didn't like it. So I sold out. At 38, I had nothing to do. I fished a lot, boated a lot, made Johnnie Walker Red maybe a quarter of a million dollars. I got tired of that."

Looking for something to do with himself and his wealth, he began investing in horses two years ago. Spend a Buck was part of his second horse purchase. After failing to sell him, Diaz turned the colt over to Gambolati, now 35, who has been a licensed trainer for an even shorter time than Diaz has been an owner.

Spend a Buck quickly boosted the neophytes to the highest levels of the game. He won five of eight races and $667,985 last year, racing at five different tracks. After winning three of four races at Calder Race Course in Florida, the colt was shipped to little River Downs, outside Cincinnati, for the 1[1/16]-mile Cradle Stakes. It was a joke. Spend a Buck rushed to the front and was in front by 15 lengths at the wire for his first stakes win. Next he won the $622,200 Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park, his first major stakes victory, by half a length.

Last fall, in the Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands, the colt was spooked by a set of tire tracks on the course but hung on tenaciously in the drive and finally lost to Script Ohio by only three-quarters of a length. It was in the Young America, Diaz figures, that Spend a Buck probably chipped a bone in his right knee, though it was not immediately obvious from the way he moved. Until, that is, he apparently tired while on the lead in the $1 million Breeders Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park and finished third, with Chiefs Crown sweeping by him in the stretch to win by a length and a half. Tank's Prospect was second.

X rays revealed the chip, and on Nov. 26 Dr. Wayne McElreath of Colorado State University performed arthroscopic surgery to remove it. "It took 12 minutes from the time he made the incision to the time he plucked the chip," Diaz says.

After nine weeks of rehabilitation—walking, jogging, swimming and galloping—the colt returned to serious training on Feb. 1. Seven weeks later Spend a Buck finished a leg-weary third in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct. Said Cordero, "He seemed like he was lost. A little sluggish."

That was the last time Spend a Buck ever seemed lost or sluggish. In fact, what he did in the next four weeks left horsemen and handicappers buzzing from New York to California. On April 6, in the Cherry Hill Mile at newly opened Garden State, he burst from the gate, opened two lengths right away, then six, then eight, and finally won by 10½ lengths. The colt was only warming up.

Two weeks later, in the Garden State Stakes, Spend a Buck ran one of the most brilliant Kentucky Derby prep races in history. He was simply terrifying. Racing to the lead through an easy first quarter, he poured speed on speed and ended up winning by 9½ lengths and running the nine furlongs, around two turns, in a sensational 1:45⅘ just two ticks off Secretariat's world record set around one turn at Belmont Park in 1973.

The Garden State was raced on April 20, a memorable day for Kentucky Derby prospects. At Aqueduct, a speedball named Eternal Prince got an easy lead in the Wood Memorial and galloped home free to win by 2¾ lengths, with two established stretch runners, Proud Truth and Rhoman Rule, vainly in pursuit. At Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Tank's Prospect came roaring off the pace to win the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby in a swift 1:48[2/5]. Five days later, last year's 2-year-old champion, Chiefs Crown, made himself the logical favorite for the Derby when he won the nine-furlong Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by 5½ lengths in 1:47⅗ only a fifth off the track record.

So they descended on Louisville in what promised to be a classic match of two speed horses. Spend a Buck and Eternal Prince, against the come-from-behind horses, Chiefs Crown, Proud Truth, Tank's Prospect and Rhoman Rule plus trainer Woody Stephens' hard-to-figure Stephan's Odyssey. Spend a Buck was a real puzzle. Was he another Seattle Slew, that fiercely combative front-runner of 1977? Or would he wilt when Eternal Prince grabbed him by the throat?

Diaz was asked what he thought of Spend a Buck's prodigious Garden State Stakes effort. "We don't know what to make of it," Diaz said. "He scares me. I don't know what we got." Indeed, neither he nor Gambolati had any intention of even running in the Kentucky Derby until that shocking performance. What they were aiming for was the Jersey Derby. Having won both the Cherry Hill Mile and Garden State Stakes, they were eligible to win a $1 million bonus should Spend a Buck also win the Jersey Derby. But then again, they could take home a $2 million bonus should Spend a Buck win both the Jersey and Kentucky derbies.

"This is the acid test," Diaz said of the Derby. "You've got to find out if you have a racehorse. This is the place to find out." Butch Lenzini, the trainer of Eternal Prince, was also looking for a line on his colt. "If someone really hooks him, I don't know," said Lenzini. "School's out on whether he's got that gameness when someone hooks him early. In his last couple of races, no one's been good enough."

The prospect of Spend a Buck and Eternal Prince having at each other through the first mile was at the center of everybody's favorite scenario. By Derby time, after days of speculation on the outcome of such a duel, Diaz stopped worrying and consigned his fate to those more directly in control of it. In his box seat near the finish line, he said, "There's nothing more to do. It's up to the colt, Cordero and God."

As things turned out, the colt took off with Cordero, Cordero took hold of the colt, and the fates took care of the rest. "I don't know what happened to Eternal Prince," said a smiling Cordero after the Derby. "He was supposed to be on the lead." What happened was that Eternal Prince broke sluggishly under Richard Migliore and was never in the hunt. Unwisely, rather than sending his horse after Spend a Buck to save any chance he had of winning, Migliore sat still. "I just wanted to settle him." he said. "I didn't want to rush him."

Jockey Don MacBeth, riding Chiefs Crown, tried to give chase, but he lacked the lick to get close enough to breathe on the leader. So there was Spend a Buck loose on the lead for almost the full 10 furlongs. MacBeth began driving the favorite at the turn for home, but Spend a Buck was six lengths on top by then and running free.

At the wire, as Spend a Buck eased up, Stephan's Odyssey drove past Chiefs Crown to get second. In the winner's circle, a stunned-looking Diaz was carrying around his 19-month-old son, Elliott, as Cordero rode around them. Diaz said he was feeling only "disbelief, elation." Draped in a garland of roses representing his third Kentucky Derby victory, Cordero then marched into the jockeys' room where MacBeth, still a maiden in the race, congratulated him.

"Save me a rose, will you?" MacBeth asked.

"You got it!" Cordero said. "Here, Donnie. Here!"






Favorite Chief's Crown led briefly at the start, but Spend a Buck was barreling up.



In the Down's long stretch, as Cordero wielded his whip, it became increasingly evident that Spend a Buck wouldn't be overtaken.



The Churchill Downs crowd roared as Spend a Buck flashed toward a 2:00[1/5] finish, the third-fastest clocking in the Derby's history.



Cordero hoisted a third bouquet of roses.



Gambolati got full value from the Buck.



The dazed Diaz, holding son Elliott, felt only "disbelief" and "elation" after the race.