What would cause a healthy, smashing winner of the Kentucky Derby to pass on the Preakness? The answer in 1985 was cash, cash, and more cash.
Few horses in my lifetime won the Run for the Roses in more impressive fashion than Spend A Buck. Trained by Cam Gambolati, and owned by Hunter Farm of Dennis Diaz, the Kentucky-bred bay colt defeated a strong field of 13 in dominating fashion. Sent off at 4-1 and one of the favorites at Churchill Downs, he went right to the front under his regular rider, Angel Cordero, Jr. and never looked back. Crossing the wire more than five-lengths in front and in fast time, Spend A Buck would have headed to Baltimore a heavy favorite in racing's Middle Jewel. His connections had millions of reasons to do the unthinkable, though.
One of the best juveniles in the nation the year before, Spend A Buck began his sophomore season in New York. After finishing third behind Pancho Villa in the seven-furlong Bay Shore at Aqueduct, Spend A Buck became a horse-a-fire in his next three starts. The next two of which took place at Garden State Park, and that is how the story really begins.
Newly reopened after a total rebuild following a devastating fire years before, Garden State Park was ready to make a splash in 1985. A $2 million bonus for any horse that could sweep their two preps, the Kentucky Derby, and the Jersey Derby seemed like an unlikely proposition when it was announced, but sure enough, the right horse came along at the right time.
A beaten favorite two weeks earlier, Spend A Buck's second race at three was big. Showing a fondness for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey oval, he went right to the lead in a field of 14 in the Cherry Hill Mile, and widened his advantage down the entire stretch. He won by 10 1/2-lengths in 1:35 2/5. His next out at Garden State would only get better.
The speedy son of Buckaroo arrived at Louisville off an amazing performance. Once again going gate-to-wire, Spend A Buck pulled away to win the Garden State Stakes by 9 1/2-lengths. Similar in looks to his win under the lights in the Cherry Mile, this time the $12,500 yearling purchase had stopped the clock in an incredible 1:45 4/5. That final time was only two-fifths of a second off the 12-year-old world record set by the incomparable Secretariat.
A similar type of monster performance in the Kentucky Derby led to the decision to break tradition. With $2.6 million on the line, $2 million from the bonus plus a $600,000 first prize, his owner Dennis Diaz did not have to think too hard about the decision. A relative newcomer to the game, Diaz followed the riches, and left the Preakness to the horses he had beaten in Louisville.
While Tank's Prospect got the best of Chief's Crown in Baltimore, Spend A Buck waited nine more days for the Jersey Derby. Even without Cordero, who could not get out of his commitment to ride Track Barron in the Met Mile, it was a race everyone expected him to win. But tested through grueling early fractions by the lightly raced, Huddle Up, the Derby winner was a little softened up when a pair of stretch runners came at him in different points of the race. Try as they might, both Creme Fraiche, a future two-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the improving winner of the Withers, El Basco, could never get by. Spend A Buck wouldn't let them.
The hard fought and brave victory that afternoon at Garden State Park instantly moved Spend A Buck to second on the list of all-time money winners, behind only the two-time Horse of the Year, John Henry.
Spend A Buck went on to race only two more times, both later that summer at Monmouth Park. He was first upset in the Haskell by Skip Trial, who had finished fifth in this Jersey Derby, but he bounced back from that second-place finish, to defeat older horses in the Grade 1 Monmouth Handicap in August. An Ankle injury soon after would end his racing career.
Despite missing the Breeders' Cup, Spend A Buck was named Champion Three-year-Old and Horse of the Year of 1985. All told he won 10-of-15 lifetime races, while never once finishing out of the money. In total, he earned $4,220,689, which was more than $2.3 million short of the record of John Henry, but enough to rank second all-time when he retired.
Of course, much of those earnings came from his win in the Jersey Derby. A race he ran in at the direct expense of a shot at the Triple Crown. Only one horse since has won the Kentucky Derby and not run in the Preakness, and that was an injured Grindstone. Would Spend A Buck have won the Preakness and the Belmont if he had run in them instead, to become the 12th Triple Crown Champion? We will never know.
(All Photos taken from the May 27, 1985 edition of the Daily Racing Form)