Billy Reed: Remembering Spend A Buck on Derby week

Billy Reed
Billy Reed

By BILLY REED | Contributor

Of my 53 years on the Kentucky Derby trail, the most unsatisfying Run for the Roses – from a writing standpoint, at least – came in 1985, when Spend A Buck turned what was supposed to be a wide-open race into a romp in the park.

Soon as the gate sprang open, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. gunned Spend A Buck to the lead and never looked back. He ran what was then the fastest six furlongs in Derby history (1:09 3/5) and the fastest mile (1:34 4/5).

Those who expected him to hit a wall at the top of the stretch were sorely disappointed. With nobody moving at him from back in the pack, he galloped home in 2:00 1/5, then the fourth fastest time in Derby history.

How do you write a “race” like that? There was absolutely no drama. He opened a four-length lead in the early going and nobody ever got any closer. What to make of it?

Cordero, of course, was the only angle worth doing. He won his first Derby in 1974 aboard Cannonade, and got his second two years later by going wire-to-wire with Bold Forbes.

But where Bold Forbes had to withstand a late challenge from the favored Honest Pleasure, Spend A Buck went to the lead, set what seemed to be a suicidal pace, and got so far ahead that he embarrassed decent horses such as Stephan’s Odyssey, Chief’s Crown and Proud Truth.

It was a gutty performance by Cordero, the Puerto Rican star who seemed to always make his presence felt in the big races. But he knew his horse, and he bet that his rival jockeys would take the more conservative approach, by not using too much horse too soon.

Now, 34 years after Cordero’s tour de force, I’m wondering if the same thing might happen when the Derby is run for the 145th time on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.

As was the case in 1985, the race seems to be wide-open. The favorite probably will go off at 5-to-1, maybe more. If any one of seven or eight horses wins, nobody will be shocked.

But does anybody have the speed to do what Spend A Buck did and a jockey with the guts to do what Cordero did?

A look at the past performances reveals that Omaha Beach, Maximum Security, Improbable, Roadster and Game Winner all like to run on the lead, or very close to it. If the field breaks cleanly, one of them probably will get the early call as the pace-setter.

But it’s hard to imagine any of them getting an easy lead and distancing himself from the field as Spend A Buck did in 1985. The front-runner figures to have a couple of horses at his throat, pushing him, all the way down the backstretch.

Much will depend on how fast the pace is. If it’s slow, one of the front-runners might have enough class to hold on and win. If it’s fast, however, that could mean a lot of tiring horses in the stretch and a come-from-behind horse passing them all.

Generally, the Derby winner doesn’t have to be on the lead, but he or she also is never more than five or six lengths from it. These horses have what is known as “tactical speed,” meaning they’re neither headstrong speed freaks or one-run horses that come from the back of the pack.

This seems to be the kind of Derby where a jockey’s wisdom and experience will be important. Riders such as Mike Smith, John Velasquez, and Victor Espinoza have ridden in the Derby enough times that they might be more likely to take a chance than a rookie concerned with making a mistake.

One more historic footnote about Spend A Buck.

Right after he won the Derby, trainer Cam Gambolati and owner Dennis Diaz announced that Spend A Buck would by pass the Preakness, the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown, to run in the Jersey Derby at renovated Garden State Park in New Jersey.

The track’s owner, Robert Brennan, had put up a $2 million bonus for any 3-year-old who could win the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby.

When Spend A Buck added the Derby to his victories in the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes, it meant Gambolati and Diaz had to decide between tradition and money.

Racing purists were horrified when they picked the Jersey Derby over the Preakness, but Spend A Buck won that race, giving his connections a $2.6 million payday, the largest single purse in American history.

To combat Brennan and preserve their image, the Triple Crown racetracks got together and formed a new marketing organization known as Triple Crown Productions.

The new group worked out a deal with the Chrysler motor company of offer a $5 million bonus to any 3-year-old able to sweep the three races. When Chrysler dropped out in 1996, the Visa credit card company replaced them until withdrawing its support in 2005.

So the Triple Crown bonus was never paid. It was long gone in 2016, when American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and now is remembered only as a part of Spend A Buck’s legacy.