The Horse Who Changed the Triple Crown

It has been 30 years since a blazingly fast 3-year-old named Spend a Buck changed the face of the Triple Crown. The colt’s journey began on a small farm in Western Kentucky and would end on a small farm in Western Louisiana, near the town of Coushatta, about 30 miles from the Texas border and finally on a farm in Brazil.

This nondescript son of Buckaroo who sold privately as a yearling for a mere $12,500 would wind up writing one of the most memorable and controversial chapters in Kentucky Derby and Preakness history. Because of Spend a Buck and his novice owner, Dennis Diaz, who had retired from his businesses at age 38 and had previously owned only one claiming horse, racing’s Triple Crown would never again be the same.

The story of Spend a Buck also is unique in that the colt provided his Derby-winning jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., with arguably the most hellish day and night of his entire career; so much so that the Hall of Fame rider tried for years to wipe away the memory of his Derby victory aboard Spend a Buck. Adding to the odd tale of Spend a Buck was his trainer, 33-year-old Cam Gambolati, a virtual unknown who had worked in his father’s orange groves and as a statistician for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking out his trainer’s license.

Spend a Buck’s story began in his paddock at Irish Hill Farm when the yearling colt caught the eye of Diaz and his friend, former trainer Peter Palmer. A newcomer to the sport, Diaz was only visiting the farm because his cousin by marriage, Ted Mims, who owned three small banks, had advised Irish Hill owner Rowe Harper to contact Diaz. One of Mims’ banks had a loan on a package of horses owned by Harper, who was having financial difficulties at the time.

“Why don’t you come up here and look at these horses,” Harper told Diaz. “You might find something you like.” A sale of any of the horses would help Harper work his way out of the loan.

Diaz and Palmer both liked a son of Buckaroo and Diaz not only bought him for $12,500, he also bought his dam, Belle de Jour, for $62,500.

Around that time, Diaz had met Gambolati and hired him through the recommendation of horseman Elliott Fuentes, who told Diaz that Gambolati’s boss had retired and he needed help getting started. Several others also recommended Gambolati and that was good enough for Diaz.

Spend a Buck went on to win three of his first four starts at Calder, including a 9 1/2-length romp in an allowance race. It was after that race that Diaz received an offer for the colt for $200,000 and had no idea what to do. So he again turned to Fuentes, who had raised and broken the colt. He invited Fuentes to his house for dinner and showed him videos of Spend a Buck’s races.

Fuentes told Diaz, “I haven’t sold many 2-year-olds in my life for $200,000 and if it were me I’d have to sell him, because I don’t keep any horses and I’d rather have the money. But it’s not me, and unless you really need the money I wouldn’t sell that horse for any price. That, my friend, is a racehorse.”

Diaz turned the offer down and a week later, Spend a Buck won the Cradle Stakes at River Downs by 15 lengths. Three weeks later he scored a hard-earned victory in the Arlington-Washington Futurity. It was after that race that Gambolati and Diaz decided to replace jockey Charlie Hussey with the more experienced Angel Cordero.

Spend a Buck closed out his 2-year-old campaign with a second in the grade I Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands and a third-place finish in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind Chief’s Crown and Tank’s Prospect. After the Breeders’ Cup it was discovered that Spend a Buck had come out of the race with a bone chip in his right knee and he underwent arthroscopic surgery on Nov. 26. He was sent to Betty and Ralph Sessa’s Circle S Farm near Davie, Fla., where he was put on a swimming program.

During that winter, Cordero became very close to Spend a Buck. Because the colt had a tendency to jump shadows, Cordero recommended they put a shadow roll on, which they did. When they asked Cordero to fly down to Calder to work the colt he obliged even though he had broken his finger, but didn’t want to risk losing the mount. According to Cordero, it was he who told them after the Breeders’ Cup that Spend a Buck wasn’t changing leads and that was what led to the discovery of the bone chip.

In his 3-year-old debut, the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, Cordero was told to try to rate the speedy, free-running colt, but it didn’t work, as he fought Cordero the entire race, finishing a well-beaten third.

Diaz and Gambolati decided to send Spend a Buck to Robert Brennan’s spanking new glitter palace, the rebuilt Garden State Park, for their series of Kentucky Derby preps. Spend a Buck’s career and the entire concept of the Triple Crown were about to change dramatically.

Brennan announced that any horse who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, and then the rich Jersey Derby would earn a $2 million bonus, which was unheard of back then. The odds of that happening seemed astronomical, especially considering that the leading 3-year-olds would not be running at Garden State. Well, except one. Even as brilliant as Spend a Buck had been, he was a pure speed horse whose distance capabilities were in question.

In those days, the Triple Crown was made up of three separate entities, each one being part of the biggest monopoly in the sport. It was because of that monopoly that the purse for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was only $250,000 in 1984, up from $200,000 in the early 80s, while the purse for the Belmont Stakes rose from $200,000 to $350,000 in 1984. By comparison, the purse for Cherry Hill Mile was $200,000, the Garden State Stakes $300,000, and the Jersey Derby, run nine days after the Preakness on Memorial Day, a whopping $1 million. That meant, even with the Maryland Jockey Club raising the purse of the Preakness to $350,000 in 1985, if a horse who was eligible for Brennan’s bonus ran in the Jersey Derby instead and won he would earn a total of $2.6 million in purse and bonus money.

But first it had to happen, and the three Triple Crown tracks certainly weren’t fretting over it, especially in the track’s very first year. In the Cherry Hill Mile, Spend a Buck ran his 13 opponents off their feet, winning by 10 1/2 lengths. In the Garden State Stakes, he really had jaws dropping, again winning wire to wire, this time by 9 1/2 lengths, and his time of 1:45 4/5 was the fastest mile and an eighth Derby prep ever run. Now, the Triple Crown entities were beginning to take notice.

The Kentucky Derby drew one of the deepest, most talented fields in years, headed by Chief’s Crown, Proud Truth, Tank’s Prospect, Stephan’s Odyssey, and Skywalker. Two of those horses – Proud Truth and Skywalker – would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The other big-name horse in the race was the speedy Wood Memorial winner Eternal Prince, who looked to be the only horse capable of running with Spend a Buck, having won both the Gotham Stakes and Wood on the front end.

So, everything was in place for one of the most competitive Kentucky Derbys of all time. Although Cordero had won two Kentucky Derbys, aboard Cannonade in 1974 and Bold Forbes in 1976, he had gone winless in nine years, with six unplaced finishes.

Not having a mount in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, Cordero decided to remain in New York to ride and then charter a plane to Kentucky. When Tartan Stable trainer Jan Nerud, son of Hall of Famer John Nerud, heard about Cordero’s plans he offered to fly him and his wife-to-be Marjorie, who was concluding her brief career as a jockey, down to Kentucky Friday night on his plane and give them a better deal than they would have gotten with a chartered plane.

Shortly after leaving their house on Long Island, Cordero, in his haste to get to the airport, was ticketed for running a stop sign. That was to be only the beginning of Cordero’s nightmare weekend. Once they arrived, Marjorie took one look at the five-seat plane and refused to get on. Cordero told her he wouldn’t go without her, so she reluctantly gave in to her fears.

Cordero’s agent at the time was new to the business and he had booked the jockey to ride a filly in a $100,000 stakes at Garden State Park…the night of the Kentucky Derby. Win or lose, Cordero had to catch a plane immediately after the Derby in order to make it for the race. After arriving in Kentucky, he informed the Churchill Downs stewards he would be unable to stay for the post-race interviews, which were held in the press box. They suggested he contact the press box and tell them, which he did.

At the start of the Derby, Eternal Prince broke poorly and then had to steady, leaving Spend a Buck all alone on the lead. Eternal Prince never was able to get in the race and faded quickly. From that point on, Spend a Buck took Cordero on a merry romp through the park, opening up a seven-length lead, and although he set blistering fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:09 3/5, he was always well within himself and doing it all on his own. It was apparent after three-quarters of a mile that the race was all but over, as Spend a Buck showed no signs of tiring.

His three-quarter fraction and his mile in 1:34 4/5 were the fastest in Derby history. All Gambolati could think during the early part of the race was, “Oh my God, I don’t believe this. I hope he knows what he’s doing.” But when Spend a Buck was still six lengths in front at the head of the stretch he knew he was home free.

Spend a Buck coasted home by 5 1/4 lengths and his time of 2:00 1/5 was the third fastest Derby ever run behind Secretariat and Northern Dancer. Gambolati remembers waking up the next morning thinking it was all a dream. He had come a long way since working in his father’s orange groves.

When the entire strategy of the race evaporated before everyone’s eyes, Diaz thought, “It was as if everyone in the stands was thinking, ‘God, somebody catch that crazy bastard.’ One of Diaz’ immediate feelings after the race was guilt, knowing how many people and how many big-name families had tried for generations to win the Derby and he wins it with a $12,500 horse a little over a year after getting in the game.

For Cordero, his ride aboard Spend a Buck would be his most stress-free moments of the day. As soon as he dismounted, he ran through the tunnel, where his valet was waiting with his clothes. Not even having time to shower, he and Margie caught a taxi and were given a police escort to the airport. Cordero had arranged with Garden State Park officials to have a limo driver waiting for him at the airport. After landing they rushed to catch the limo, not realizing Margie had left her purse, containing their money, credit cards, and house keys, on the plane.

Knowing how tight it was going to be to make the race, Cordero began to panic when the limo driver got lost. By the time they finally arrived at the track, the horses were already in the paddock, and Cordero learned that Chris Antley had already been named to replace him. So, here was Cordero, spending thousands of dollars for a plane to get him to a race in which he couldn’t ride. And on top of that, he wasn’t even able to enjoy his victory in the Kentucky Derby, run only hours before.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, jockey Jean Cruguet, after hearing that Cordero had arranged to have a helicopter fly him and Margie back to New York, asked if he could catch a ride back. But when Cruguet saw that Antley had been named on the filly, he told the helicopter pilot that Cordero wasn’t coming and that he should just fly him back alone.

Not only had Cordero missed the mount, he had no way of getting back home. Margie tried to get him to relax, reminding him he had just won the Kentucky Derby.

When Garden State president Robert Quigley’s secretary heard of Cordero’s predicament she offered to have come inside and get something to eat and then fly back on Quigley’s helicopter. After eating, Cordero gave the waiter $50 of the $60 he had in his wallet. As they approached the helicopter, Cordero told Margie to tip the driver $20, and that is when she realized she had left her purse on the plane.

After landing in New York, Cordero and Margie, with no more cash, no credit card, and no house keys, used their last $10 for a taxi to take them to a nearby hotel that Cordero would often use to put up guests from his native Puerto Rico. He figured he would explain the situation to the hotel owner, who a friend of his, and pay for the room later. But he was told the hotel was completely booked because of a convention.

So Cordero called his friend, jockey Jorge Velasquez, but he was still in Kentucky, so he asked his housekeeper if she had a car. When she told him she did, he asked her to pick them up and they would stay at Velasquez’ house that night. As it turned out, she got lost and it took her two hours to get there. They finally arrived at Velasquez’ house at 5 in the morning, and Cordero realized he was supposed to work trainer Walter Kelley’s good sprinter Ziggy’s Boy at 6 o’clock. Instead of going to bed, he asked the housekeeper to drive him to Belmont Park. He arrived at Kelley’s barn all disheveled and still wearing his suit jacket.

Before he could say anything, Kelley told him, “You’ve been out partying all night. Look at you. You think I’m crazy enough to put you on my horse? Go home and go to sleep.”

Cordero stopped by Nerud’s barn to get Margie’s purse, but Nerud’s assistant said he was off that day. Cordero woke Nerud up and told him he couldn’t get in his house, to meet him at a designated place. But when he came out of Nerud’s office he discovered the housekeeper had left, so he had to borrow Nerud’s assistant’s car. He picked up Margie’s purse and then drove to the airport to get his car. He then picked up Margie at Velasquez’ house  and finally arrived home only to find that his own housekeeper was there all along. When she saw him win the Derby, she figured he’d want something to eat, so she stayed over and cooked dinner for them. There decorating his house were balloons and signs reading, “Welcome back, champ.”

Several days later, Diaz shocked the racing world by announcing that Spend a Buck would pass the Preakness and point for the Jersey Derby and the bonus. It was unheard of for the Derby winner to pass the Preakness, but times were changing, and Diaz had not been in the game long enough to choose tradition over the big bucks offered by Brennan.

For Cordero, there was more bad news to come. He had been contracted by Peter Brant to ride Track Barron in the Met Mile the same day as the Jersey Derby. He pleaded his case with Gambolati to try to get the race pushed back a little to give him time to get to Garden State after the Met. He had a special helicopter all ready to go, but he knew he couldn’t make the scheduled post time. Diaz said he had TV contracts to consider and waited as long as he could for Cordero to decide who to ride.

Not only did Diaz and Gambolati go ahead and name Laffit Pincay to ride Spend a Buck in the Jersey Derby, they made a commitment with him to ride the colt the rest of the year. After all he had been through, Cordero was off Spend a Buck for good, and he remains bitter about it even after all these years. He would have understood had Gambolati even attempted to work something out with ESPN and the stewards, and he felt Diaz should have at least offered him a share of the bonus, but they wanted Cordero to make a decision either way, even though he was committed to ride Track Barron.

Spend a Buck did not have an easy time of it in the Jersey Derby, winning by a head over Crème Fraiche after getting early heat from a no-hoper named Huddle Up, trained by Wayne Lukas, who had put him in the race to take the starch out of Spend a Buck in case the Derby winner came back in the Belmont Stakes against Lukas’ Preakness winner Tank’s Prospect. But head margin or no head margin, Spend a Buck’s connections were $2.6 million richer.

And as for the Triple Crown, the three tracks were forced to unite and form Triple Crown Productions. That eventually resulted in sponsorship, major purse hikes for all three races, a $5 million dollar bonus for sweeping the Triple Crown and a $1 million bonus for the horse who competed in all three races and accumulated the most points.

Diaz said years later, “It’s really a shame that no one gave Spend a Buck credit for what he did and how he affected the racing industry. They had it all their own way for so many years and he forced their hands. He shook up the business. It took a horse like him and a maverick owner like me and a maverick trainer like Gambolati to do it. We were just bulls in a china shop and weren’t bound by tradition and indoctrination.”

Gambolati remembered the three weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby as “the biggest hell of my life.” He couldn’t go in a restaurant or a grocery store without people telling him what they thought of the decision to skip the Preakness.

As for Spend a Buck, he was upset by Skip Trial in the Haskell, in which he bled. He came back against older horses in the Monmouth Handicap and again turned in a gutsy effort to come again to beat the top-class Carr de Naskra. His time of 1:46 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles was a new track record that still stands.

Spend a Buck was prematurely retired to Lane’s End Farm, but then hopped from farm to farm, eventually winding up in Brazil in 1998. After recovering from an illness, he was sent to Red River Farm near Shreveport, La. where he arrived physically deteriorated and suffering from fertility problems. Thanks to the efforts of Jay Adcock and the staff at Red River, the 18-year-old stallion made a remarkable recovery and finally found contentment fraternizing with neighboring broodmares and splashing around and bathing in his own private three-foot deep pond. His 1 1/2-acre paddock adjoined the broodmare pasture, and the mares would be brought into his paddock to be bred to him.

Looking back, Gambolati said, “Wherever we went with this horse there was controversy. People don’t remember him as the horse who unified the Triple Crown and was responsible for the creation of Triple Crown Productions. We created a great thing.”

Spend a Buck continued to shuttle to Brazil. Following the 2001 breeding season he was sent to Haras Bage do Sul, where he died the following year from anaphylactic shock. It was an ironic way to go for a horse who had shocked the racing world. His greatest legacy as a sire was the great Brazilian-bred Einstein, earner of nearly $3 million.

As for Cordero, he said of Spend a Buck’s Derby, “I loved Spend a Buck, but I’ve always hated that Derby. It cost me nearly $10,000 to fly to Kentucky and back to New Jersey, and then I wound up losing the mount and losing out on any of the bonus.” But a tragic event in Cordero’s life has made him change his mind.

He married Margie, and in 2001, she was killed by a hit and run driver near their home in Greenvale, Long Island. Cordero was devastated and still cries whenever he thinks about Margie and those happy days. If it weren’t for their three children and the success of his “adopted” son John Velazquez, for whom he is agent, he doesn’t think he would have made it. He felt as if he had lost his reason for living.

Although he tried for so many years to forget the 1985 Derby and its aftermath due to all the turmoil and anguish, he now thinks of the race with fond memories, because, as he puts it, “Margie was there.”

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