Speed is supposed to kill in the Kentucky Derby, but it dodged all the bullets Saturday at Churchill Downs. Spend A Buck, a long-striding colt who must have quicksilver flowing through his veins, posted the fastest six furlongs and the fastest mile in the history of the Derby, then waved his tail at 12 pursuers through the long stretch run to win America's premier race by 5 lengths in front of 108,573 fans.
Stephan's Odyssey finished second, half a length ahead of Chief's Crown, who became the sixth straight betting favorite to turn turtle in the Derby. In what was supposed to be one of the most competitive Derbies in years, Spend a Buck humiliated his competition, coasting to victory by the biggest margin since the club-footed Assault won by eight lengths en route to a Triple Crown sweep in 1946.
Spend a Buck, purchased as a yearling for $12,500 out of a bankruptcy sale, earned $406,800 for his owners, Dennis and Linda Diaz of Tampa, Fla., by running the third fastest Derby--a 2:00 1/5 that ranks behind only Secretariat's 1:59 2/5 in 1973 and Northern Dancer's 2:00 in 1964.
The trainers of Spend A Buck's opponents knew this bay son of Buckaroo could run fast--his wins at Garden State Park by 20 combined lengths in the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes told them that--but there was the question of whether he could sustain his speed over 1 miles, a grueling distance for 3-year-olds.
Spend A Buck answered that question with an exclamation point. With an eighth of a mile to run, Dennis Diaz, a 42-year-old self-made millionaire in the real-estate and construction businesses, started hugging his trainer, Cam Gambolati, and kissing everybody within kissing distance in the box-seat area at the ancient track.
Jockey Angel Cordero, who had won the Derby before with Cannonade in 1974 and Bold Forbes in 1976, made sure Spend A Buck wouldn't loaf with a five-length lead over Chief's Crown going into the stretch. Cordero whipped Spend A Buck four times from the right side, then five times from the left in winning the Derby with the same wire-to-wire style that he employed with Bold Forbes.
The second betting choice behind the 6-to-5 Chief's Crown in 70-degree, sunshiny weather, Spend A Buck paid $10.20, $5.40 and $3.40, becoming a millionaire and lifting his career earnings to almost $1.4 million.
Stephan's Odyssey, who had a rough trip but not enough trouble to make an alibi against the awesome Spend A Buck, paid $10.20 and $5, and Chief's Crown, holding third by just a neck over 92-1 longshot Fast Account, returned $2.80. A $2 exacta on Spend A Buck and Stephan's Odyssey paid $118.20.
Afterward, Diaz said that a decision would be made either today or Monday on whether Spend A Buck will run in the Preakness Stakes, the second race in the Triple Crown series, at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 18. Only four Derby winners--Determine, Swaps, Tomy Lee and Gato Del Sol--have passed up the Preakness in the last 31 years. But Diaz has an unusual consideration with Spend A Buck: The colt can earn $2.6 million--a $2-million bonus and a winning purse of $600,000--by winning the $1-million Jersey Derby at Garden State Park on May 27. The bonus was offered by the New Jersey track to any horse that won the Cherry Hill, Garden State, Kentucky and Jersey derbies.
"I like being caught between that kind of a rock and a hard place," said Diaz, who left his other businesses to enter racing full time 3 1/2 years ago. Gambolati, 35, has been a head trainer for just over a year and hadn't won a stakes race until Spend A Buck won the Cradle at River Downs last September.
About three months later, after finishing third behind Chief's Crown and Tank's Prospect in the $1-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes at Hollywood Park, Spend A Buck underwent arthroscopic knee surgery for the removal of a bone chip. He has returned to action with a third and three wins this year, giving him a lifetime record of eight wins, two seconds and two thirds in 12 starts.
Other than Spend A Buck's tenacity through the final quarter-mile, the only surprise in the Derby was that Eternal Prince, the winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 20, didn't run with the winner in the early going. Eternal Prince, breaking from the fifth post position, could be excused for that. Stephan's Odyssey, who had the No. 6 post, tried to bite Eternal Prince coming out of the gate.
"Besides that," said Richard Migliore, Eternal Prince's rider, "my horse was upset by the crowd. They were yelling and screaming, and he kept cocking his head one way or the other."
So instead of battling Eternal Prince for the lead--Gambolati thought Spend A Buck might be second starting down the backstretch--the winner had a six-length lead over Chief's Crown after a half mile. And Chief's Crown, the winner of the Flamingo and the Blue Grass Stakes, couldn't cut into that margin.
As Chief's Crown flattened out in the stretch, Stephan's Odyssey, at one point last by 16 1/2 lengths, tried to make up that ground along the rail into the final turn. Stephan's Odyssey bumped both Tank's Prospect and Fast Account, however, and couldn't close the gap.
After the first four, the rest of the order of finish was Proud Truth, Skywalker, Tank's Prospect, Floating Reserve, Rhoman Rule, Encolure, Irish Fighter, Eternal Prince and I Am the Game.
Don MacBeth, riding Chief's Crown, failed to win the Derby in his ninth try and dismissed a suggestion that this isn't his race.
"Jinx, there's no Derby jinx for me," MacBeth said. "The winner was just too much and ran a super race. I didn't want to go after Spend A Buck too soon, that wasn't the plan."
A blonde approached Roger Laurin, Chief's Crown's trainer, at his barn after the race and asked if she could hug him.
"Yeah," Laurin said. "Most of the people around here want to kill me."
Just as speed usually kills in the Derby. There's a long list of front-running horses who lost their courage when they turned for home at Churchill Downs and still couldn't see the finish line. But not Spend A Buck, who is some sort of physiological phenomenon--a patched-up leg, a heart like a boulder and lungs as big as the Hindenburg.