Spend A Buck, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, will not run in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
He will give up the chance to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner to compete in the Jersey Derby May 27 at Garden State Park, where a victory would give him the largest single payoff in history: $2.6 million.
Gato Del Sol, in 1982, was the last Derby winner to pass up the Preakness.
Owner Dennis Diaz announced the decision at the Cherry Hill, N.J., track yesterday afternoon, and he anticipated the nature of the storm it is going to cause. "I've heard from people about tradition and tradition and tradition and 'you owe this to racing,' " he said. "But those are the same people telling you the Preakness is more lucrative (because it will increase the horse's future stud value)."
Diaz anticipated the reaction of Pimlico's General Manager Chick Lang, whose big race on May 18 is about to lose its top box-office attraction.
"I was raised in this game so you know how I feel about tradition," Lang said. "Brennan (Garden State owner Robert Brennan) has no regard for anybody or anything.
"Sure, I'd like to have Spend A Buck, but I can't compete with Brennan. But when I go to sleep I rest, and when I look in the mirror to shave I don't have to apologize to anybody."
It is hardly surprising that Brennan has provoked this unprecedented clash of money versus tradition. The entrepreneur clashed with traditional Wall Streeters as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission while he made his fortune running First Jersey Securities.
When he became interested in racing, he did so in a characteristically big way, and raised more than $100 million to rebuild Garden State Park, which had been destroyed by fire. The track offered an impressive stakes lineup for its first season, including a $1 million purse for the Jersey Derby, which was scheduled only nine days after the Preakness. As a special inducement, he offered a $2 million bonus to any horse who won Garden State's two earlier 3-year-old stakes, the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes, plus the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby.
That seemed to be a one-in-a-million possibility, until Spend A Buck went from Garden State to Churchill Downs and scored a 5 1/4-length victory. Both Pimlico and Garden State started lobbying furiously.
Lang thought his arguments about the prestige and monetary value of a possible Triple Crown sweep were prevailing, but Brennan sent his private plane to bring Diaz to New Jersey on Monday for further discussions. Brennan was reportedly interested in buying an interest in Spend A Buck, but no such deal came about.
Lang, however, suspected some kind of a deal was made. "I was confident," he said, "until I heard that Brennan sent his private jet. Once Brennan got him behind closed doors . . . what the hell! He probably made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Harry Truman used to say, 'The buck stops here.' Well, this time the Buck stopped at Garden State."
Brennan emphatically denied this charge. "No extra inducements were given to Spend A Buck's owners," he said at the press conference. But he offered no apology to critics who think he is spoiling the great tradition of the Triple Crown.
"Our goal," he declared, "is to go for the best horses we can attract every year."
His challenge almost surely will force change in the financial structure of the Triple Crown races. In recent years, purses for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont have been dwarfed by the money offered for other major races, and the 3-year-old classics have depended on tradition to lure the best horses.
Brennan surely recognized this. The disparity between the Garden State pot and the winner's share of the Preakness -- about $300,000 -- was enough to tempt any owner. Diaz didn't deny that the money was persuasive: "We are tickled pink to have a shot at a $2.6 million payday," he said.
Diaz said he and trainer Cam Gambolati also were influenced by the fact that Spend A Buck would have a 23-day rest after the Kentucky Derby. The colt has had a hard campaign this spring and, Diaz said, "It begins to worry you if you push him this hard. This is a colt who gives you 110 percent every time he races."
Spend A Buck probably would face minimal opposition in the Jersey Derby; if he scored an easy victory, he would probably go into the Belmont Stakes 12 days later. But Diaz denied that the likelihood of soft competition swayed his thinking.
"We don't have to prove anything to anybody," he said. "Our horse went into the lion's den the other day and he ate the lion, and he didn't leave any scraps."
But the stress of the Kentucky Derby probably will be child's play compared to the lion's den Diaz has walked into now. Between now and the Jersey Derby, half of America figures to be second-guessing him for spurning a great tradition of the sport to take Robert Brennan's megabucks.