"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 1:45[4/5], 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 1:47[3/5], only a fifth off the track record.