The story is told that two weeks ago, when Angel Cordero Jr. was warming up Spend A Buck immediately before the Garden State Stakes, a rival jockey yelled out to Cordero, "Stop!"
Cordero pulled up abruptly, turned around and asked, "Anything wrong?"
The jockey smiled. "No. I just want to see the front of your horse," he explained. "Because I know that after we leave the gate, I won't see anything but his tail."
That's all they saw that day.
That's all they saw Saturday.
Spend A Buck went wire to wire in the Kentucky Derby, laughing at the best horses the 3-year-old class has to offer, running away from them as if they were contagious.
How do you like the view so far, boys?
Getting used to it yet?
"The last eighth of a mile, I was hugging the trainer and kissing everyone I could find," said Dennis Diaz, who is feeling understandably affectionate now, considering he owns Spend A Buck, Spend A Buck's dam and Spend A Buck's full brother. "I knew they wouldn't catch him if we went around again. Halfway through the race I could see he was going to win. It was just a matter of how much he was going to win by. He may not be a perfect colt, but he sure runs like hell."
Fairy tales can come true.
Three years ago Dennis and Linda Diaz weren't even in the horse business. Two years ago Dennis and Linda Diaz bought this colt for $12,500. Right now he might well be worth 1,000 times that.
Is this a great country, or what?
"Listen, a good horse has made a genius out of a lot of people," Dennis Diaz said Friday. "If you get lucky enough to win the Kentucky Derby in your first try, you tell people how it happened -- not how to do it."
If there was a critical moment in Spend A Buck's career -- besides last November's operation to correct a bone chip in his right front knee, of course -- it was the decision to put Cordero on him. Spend A Buck had won five of his first six races as a 2-year-old with Charles Hussey riding, the last win in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, where he beat some speedballs. That one convinced Diaz and trainer Cam Gambolati that Spend A Buck was "a Grade 1- caliber race horse."
Believing that, Diaz had what he calls "an extremely difficult decision to make. Do we stick with Hussey, who'd done a fine job for us? Or do we go with a world-class jockey?" At first, Diaz intended to stick with Hussey. But the more he thought about it, the more he found himself leaning the other way. "I finally decided I'd been wrong," Diaz said. "I called Cam and said, 'Let's do a 180 on this; get hold of Angel.' "
By going after Cordero, Diaz was declaring his belief that Spend A Buck was a world-class horse, a real big deal.
"Listen," Diaz said. "Every owner believes that his horse is a real big deal. The important thing was that Angel Cordero believed that this horse was a real big deal."
Spend A Buck didn't win the first three times Cordero rode him. But he's on a three-for-three streak now. There was a track-record 10 1/2-length win in a mile at Garden State four weeks ago, then a track-record 9 1/2-length win in a 1 1/8-mile race at the same track. Now, there's this compelling 5 1/4-length win in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, the race that everyone admits separates the cream from the milk.
Friday morning, when Diaz and Gambolati were particularly worried that an early speed duel between Spend A Buck and Eternal Prince might burn out both horses and leave the gates wide open for Chief's Crown or Proud Truth, Diaz said, "Our big problem is Eternal Prince, and Angel Cordero, hopefully, is our big solution."
As it was for Dennis and Linda Diaz, Saturday was the first time Gambolati saddled a Derby horse. What could he possibly tell Cordero -- now a three-time winner here -- about running for the roses? "I talked to him for about five minutes," Gambolati said. "I said, 'I'm not telling you nothing. All I want you to do is get him to relax.' "
An hour before the race, standing by Spend A Buck's stall, wearing a lucky blue sportscoat, Gambolati seemed rather relaxed himself. "Everything's as good as can be expected," he said. "I was more nervous two weeks ago at Garden State than I am now. The way I look at it, wherever he runs, I'll be happy. Lose. Win. Whatever. See, I know if he gets beat, he'll get beat by a better horse."
Like who, someone asked.
Chief's Crown was the first horse Gambolati named, the favorite, and the horse that beat Spend A Buck in last year's Breeder's Cup. "He's definitely the one to beat," Gambolati said. Then he named Tank's Prospect, Rhoman Rule and Eternal Prince.
They're all good.
Today they were up against great.
"Unbelievable," Gambolati kept on saying after the race was run and won so convincingly. "Unbelievable. Absolutely amazing performance. I don't know how good he is; I don't think anybody knows how good he is." He paused. "He beat the best, so I guess he is the best. For today, anyway." Gambolati shook his head back and forth. "We got the lead so easy I couldn't believe it. I mean I was shocked that Eternal Prince let us go like that."
You have to wonder why that happened. You have to wonder just what Brian Hurst, Eternal Prince's owner, was thinking when he looked at the lead and saw his speedster wasn't anywhere near it. A half-hour before the race, Hurst stood near his horse's stall, waiting for the call to the track. Whimsically he posed the question, "Is there life after the Kentucky Derby?" Then louder, and with a hollow, nervous sound, he called to a small group of reporters, "It's not like we're going to the electric chair, guys, we're just gonna run a horse race."
Life after the Kentucky Derby?
They asked Gambolati. This is what he said: "How do I feel? Right now? I'm afraid I'm going to wake up."