Whither Spend A Buck?

That question has posed a tough decision for owner Dennis Diaz, prompted speculation throughout the racing world and tormented officials of Pimico Race Course since the colt's runaway victory in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Diaz said this morning that he had not made a decision but would do so in the next day or two, after discussions with trainer Cam Gambolati and breeder Will Farish, who is about to buy a half-interest in the colt. He gave no hint about which way he was leaning.

"We're going to approach it as pragmatically as possible," Diaz said.

In other years Spend A Buck would have headed routinely for Pimlico, seeking to win some $300,000 in the Preakness and pursuing the Triple Crown.

But because he had previously won two Derby prep races at Garden State, Spend A Buck became eligible for a $2 million bonus if he captures the Jersey Derby at that track on May 27. First-place money in the Jersey Derby would be $600,000, so Spend A Buck could earn $2.6 million for winning a race against minimal competition.

In the Preakness, he would again have to face Derby favorite Chief's Crown and the speedy Eternal Prince, both of whom would be primed to deny Spend A Buck the easy lead he got at Churchill Downs. Skywalker, sixth in the Derby, also is expected.

Gambolati said there are two points to consider: "There is the time factor. Does he need 23 days (to the Jersey Derby) or 14 days (to the Preakness)? Then we have to think what's to gain from running in each race. What's going to look better for him when he stands at stud?"

Faced with the prospect he could lose his big box-office attraction, Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang was lobbying almost as soon as the roses were draped around Spend A Buck's neck.

Lang said, "They've got to weigh the $2.6 million in ordinary income, which is $1.3 million after taxes, against what he could be worth if he wins the Triple Crown. Spend A Buck could probably be syndicated for $20 million now, but if he wins the Preakness and the Belmont he'd be worth $40 or $50 million."

Actually, the economic arguments weigh in favor of the Garden State race. The $2.6 million offered in Jersey is a bird in the hand versus two in the bush; Spend A Buck has the look of a one-dimensional front-runner, and he would certainly be no cinch in the Belmont.

Moreover, a victory in the Jersey Derby would make Spend A Buck the third-leading thoroughbred money-winner in history, and he would have a chance to surpass the No. 1 horse, John Henry, before the year is over. Such credentials might enhance his reputation and his stud value even more than a victory in the Preakness.

If Diaz does choose to take his colt to Baltimore instead of Cherry Hill, N.J., it will most likely be for reasons of tradition and public sentiment. He is surely going to be knocked if he sends his horse in pursuit of an easy $2.6 million rather than the glory of the Triple Crown.

"I got my first two telegrams last night," the owner said today, "and they both said: Go for it! You've got to go for the Triple Crown!"