So they descended on Louisville in what promised to be a classic match of two speed horses. Spend a Buck and Eternal Prince, against the come-from-behind horses, Chiefs Crown, Proud Truth, Tank's Prospect and Rhoman Rule plus trainer Woody Stephens' hard-to-figure Stephan's Odyssey. Spend a Buck was a real puzzle. Was he another Seattle Slew, that fiercely combative front-runner of 1977? Or would he wilt when Eternal Prince grabbed him by the throat?
Diaz was asked what he thought of Spend a Buck's prodigious Garden State Stakes effort. "We don't know what to make of it," Diaz said. "He scares me. I don't know what we got." Indeed, neither he nor Gambolati had any intention of even running in the Kentucky Derby until that shocking performance. What they were aiming for was the Jersey Derby. Having won both the Cherry Hill Mile and Garden State Stakes, they were eligible to win a $1 million bonus should Spend a Buck also win the Jersey Derby. But then again, they could take home a $2 million bonus should Spend a Buck win both the Jersey and Kentucky derbies.
"This is the acid test," Diaz said of the Derby. "You've got to find out if you have a racehorse. This is the place to find out." Butch Lenzini, the trainer of Eternal Prince, was also looking for a line on his colt. "If someone really hooks him, I don't know," said Lenzini. "School's out on whether he's got that gameness when someone hooks him early. In his last couple of races, no one's been good enough."
The prospect of Spend a Buck and Eternal Prince having at each other through the first mile was at the center of everybody's favorite scenario. By Derby time, after days of speculation on the outcome of such a duel, Diaz stopped worrying and consigned his fate to those more directly in control of it. In his box seat near the finish line, he said, "There's nothing more to do. It's up to the colt, Cordero and God."
As things turned out, the colt took off with Cordero, Cordero took hold of the colt, and the fates took care of the rest. "I don't know what happened to Eternal Prince," said a smiling Cordero after the Derby. "He was supposed to be on the lead." What happened was that Eternal Prince broke sluggishly under Richard Migliore and was never in the hunt. Unwisely, rather than sending his horse after Spend a Buck to save any chance he had of winning, Migliore sat still. "I just wanted to settle him." he said. "I didn't want to rush him."
Jockey Don MacBeth, riding Chiefs Crown, tried to give chase, but he lacked the lick to get close enough to breathe on the leader. So there was Spend a Buck loose on the lead for almost the full 10 furlongs. MacBeth began driving the favorite at the turn for home, but Spend a Buck was six lengths on top by then and running free.
At the wire, as Spend a Buck eased up, Stephan's Odyssey drove past Chiefs Crown to get second. In the winner's circle, a stunned-looking Diaz was carrying around his 19-month-old son, Elliott, as Cordero rode around them. Diaz said he was feeling only "disbelief, elation." Draped in a garland of roses representing his third Kentucky Derby victory, Cordero then marched into the jockeys' room where MacBeth, still a maiden in the race, congratulated him.
"Save me a rose, will you?" MacBeth asked.
"You got it!" Cordero said. "Here, Donnie. Here!"