There are enough stories concerning the rise and fall of thoroughbreds to fill an encyclopaedia. Some are even factual. Most, however, have their theme guided by a quirky trainer or an owner whose future is tied to a wayward comet.
A few thoroughbreds come out of nowhere. A larger number are lumped with horses whose early races aren’t much to remember, but who prosper at age four or five. Then there are the stories of thoroughbreds who are discovered in out of the way places or by unconventional means.
Take for example a smallish bay colt foaled in the western part of stately old Kentucky. Foaled in Owensboro near the Ohio River, a place more known for its basketball than its thoroughbreds.
Spend A Buck was a yearling being raised on a plot of land called Irish Hill Farm. That name could be changed at any time. Changed by a new owner because Rowe Harper was going through bankruptcy proceedings and was getting out of the thoroughbred business.
Harper had sent out near-desperate feelers through his friends that his racing stock was for sale at rock-bottom prices. He hadn’t the time nor the patience to wait for an auction to sell his thoroughbreds.
Dennis Diaz was given the information regarding Harper’s misadventures. Diaz took his trainer, neophyte Cam Gambolati, with him to Owensboro. Both Diaz and Gambolati were equal greenhorns to racing. One (Diaz) was buying his first race horses. The other (Gambolati) was going to train them with the license he had gotten two years previously.
The two newcomers drove up to one of the Irish Hill Farm fields and saw about 30 thoroughbreds grazing and going through their day in routine ways.
Spend A Buck was only a year old, but both Diaz and Gambolati were taken by what they perceived to be his intelligence. It appeared to the men that the little colt was using a much bigger horse as his personal body guard.
The two men had entered the field where the horses were being kept, trying to get a closer look at all of the stock, but giving particular interest to the little fellow who kept using his “body guard” to prevent them from getting close to him.
With some amount of maneuvering to get the proper angles, Diaz and Gambolati were able to make their evaluations of the yearling who was unnamed at the time.
They paid the bankrupt Harper only $12,500 for the young thoroughbred who would turn out to be Spend A Buck, later the winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby.
Spend A Buck had War Admiral, Man o’ War, Buckpasser, Princequillo, Nasrullah, Swaps and Tom Fool in his genealogical background.
His out-of-the-ordinary owner and trainer took a most out-of-the-ordinary path to the Kentucky Derby. Spend A Buck’s last two prep races for The Derby were at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, NJ. In April of 1985, he won the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes.
It just so happened that Garden State Park had just reopened after being shuttered for too long. The new owner made it known that he would give a considerable bonus to the thoroughbred who could win those races, go to Churchill Downs and take The Derby and then return to Garden State Park and win the Jersey Derby.
Robert Brennan had a $2 million payday for any horse who could win those four races.
Spend A Buck had the first two.
And then he romped to over a five-length win in the Kentucky Derby. He had three of the four races necessary to getting the gigantic payday.
The Jersey Derby was a $1 million race with fully $600,000 going to the winner.
But doesn’t every Kentucky Derby winner go next to the Preakness Stakes and the second jewel of the Triple Crown?
Diaz and Gambolati didn’t!
They waited nine days past the 1985 Preakness Stakes and took Spend A Buck back to Garden State Park and ran in the May 27 Jersey Derby. The colt had 23 days between races instead of the mere 14 he would have been given between The Derby and the Preakness.
Spend a Buck won that race by a neck.
Diaz collected more money in one afternoon than had ever been realized on any racing day in history. He received the $2 million in bonus money from the president of Garden State Park, and he got the $600,000 for winning the Jersey Derby. A cool $2.6 million in one fell swoop.
All from a little yearling who was intelligent enough to protect his well-being by coaxing a shield from a larger body guard.
Racing has its stranger than fiction truths. And the story of how Spend A Buck came from a field in Owensboro to having his owner snub the Preakness and Belmont is one of the more unusual partial life histories.