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Early in 1984, Dennis Diaz nominated his unraced and untested 2-year-old, Spend a Buck, to a select sale in Ocala, Fla. for juveniles in training. Diaz had paid only $12,500 for the colt after watching him romp around a field in Kentucky as a yearling in 1983, and now he was hoping to make a quick buck on the horse.
So an Ocala veterinarian paid a call on the colt at Diaz's 85-acre Hunter Farm in Odessa, Fla. to decide whether Spend a Buck should be selected for the sale. "The vet came out and took him out of the stall and examined him completely," Diaz's wife, Linda, recalls. "He didn't say anything to us, but he turned him down for the sale."
That rejection left Diaz despondent. He had retired from the insurance and real estate business in 1981 at the age of 38 after suffering a severe case of burnout, and now he was burned up. "Dennis was just moping along," Linda says. One day he was moping past Spend a Buck's stall on the farm when, in a fit of pique, he kicked the wire-mesh webbing on the colt's stall and exclaimed, "If somebody walked by now and gave me $30,000 for this horse, he'd be gone!"
Linda Diaz was telling the story and laughing about it early in the evening last Saturday. "We've thanked [the veterinarian] every day since," she said. "The fairy tale came true, didn't it?"
Indeed it did. An hour or so earlier, under blue Kentucky skies and over a racetrack nearly as hard and fast as nearby Interstate 264, Spend a Buck had inherited an unexpectedly easy lead and simply scorched Churchill Downs with the third-fastest Kentucky Derby ever run. With the fastest opening mile in Derby history, a breathtaking 1:34[4/5], he chewed up and spit out his closest pursuers, Chiefs Crown and Tank's Prospect, and then clippety-clopped through a final quarter in :25[2/5] to win the 111th running of the classic by 5¼ lengths. His final time of 2:00[1/5] was only four-fifths of a second off Secretariat's 1973 Derby record of 1:59[2/5] and it was a mere tick behind Northern Dancer's second-fastest clocking of two minutes flat in 1964.
It was thus that this diminutive but neatly balanced and attractive bay colt—the first stakes winner sired by Buckaroo, a son of Buckpasser—turned what was supposed to be the most hotly competitive Derby in years into a personal tour de force. The fire-sale yearling and Ocala-sale reject suddenly became worth an estimated $11 million for stud syndication, with several Kentucky breeders making Diaz offers for the colt. For his part, Diaz was folding a worrisome new wrinkle into the brows of traditionalists who regard the annual quest for a winner of the Triple Crown as something akin to a search for the Holy Grail.
Spend a Buck could earn a $2 million bonus simply by winning the 1¼-mile Jersey Derby at Garden State Park on May 27, a race obviously at his mercy. Diaz said he may bypass the May 18 Preakness to go for the big bucks in Jersey, thus forfeiting the colt's chances to win the Triple Crown, a feather in the forelock of any potential studhorse. "There's no way we're gonna run in both races," said Cam Gambolati, Spend a Buck's trainer.
"We're in the business to win purses," said Diaz. "I think the business of making studs may have gotten out of hand." Nonetheless, on Monday Diaz was leaning toward the Preakness.
The only thing that got out of hand on Saturday was Spend a Buck as he pounced like a cat out of the gate and dashed quite alone to the lead, with jockey Angel Cordero Jr. all wrapped up and bent over in a headlock in an effort to restrain him. The colt scooted through an opening quarter mile in :23 and led by a length and a half as he passed under the wire for the first time. That was the beginning and, essentially, the end of the 1985 Derby. Asked later when he thought he had the race won, Cordero quipped, "After the wire."
"The first time or the second time?" someone asked.