Some traditionalists and rival racetrack managements may think it crazy that Spend a Buck can earn $2.6 million for beating a mediocre field in the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park Monday.
In fact, this bonanza is a sign that some sanity is returning to thoroughbred economics. Nothing could be healthier for the sport.
As the price for thoroughbred breeding stock has soared to stratospheric levels in the last decade, the money a horse could win on the track became inconsequential compared to what he could earn at stud. A great horse could make more by breeding with a single mare than he could by winning the Kentucky Derby.
The emphasis on stud value over racing value had many consequences, almost all of them bad. Top horses were retired early and whisked off to stud. They were often shielded from challenging races because a loss might hurt their future stud value.
The only answer to the problem was money -- the kind of big purse money that the Breeders' Cup races offered, the kind of bonus money that Garden State offered to a horse who could sweep its three major stakes for 3-year-olds in addition to the Kentucky Derby.
With a chance to win a $2 million bonus plus $600,000 in first-prize money, owner Dennis Diaz wasn't scurrying to finalize a deal that would syndicate Spend a Buck for future stud duty. Winning a race was more important -- and it's been a long time since that happened in the sport.
Of course, Spend a Buck still has to win it. Even though none of his eight rivals has especially strong credentials, the outcome of the Jersey Derby is not a foregone conclusion. The presence of a California invader named Huddle Up adds an element of mystery to the race.
Spend a Buck has won his last three races -- the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes and the Kentucky Derby -- in runaways, but each of them was made to order for him. He was the only front-runner in the New Jersey races, and he was able to take a comfortable early lead without being challenged.
At Churchill Downs, he was expected to have early competition from Eternal Prince, but when that rival came out of the gate badly he found himself alone in the lead again. Almost any horse can look good under such circumstances; Spend a Buck has still not shown that he can go a long distance if he has to cope with early pressure.
Now he will probably have that chance. Trainer Wayne Lukas, who won the Preakness with Tank's Prospect, has sent Huddle Up here from California, even though the colt hardly looks as if he will be suited for the 1 1/4-mile distance. He is a front-running sprinter who has never won a race longer than six furlongs, and he will surely try to take the early lead in the Jersey Derby.
Spend a Buck's jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr. (replacing Angel Cordero Jr., who is committed to ride in New York), will face a difficult tactical problem: should he risk a suicidal duel for the early lead or should he alter his mount's customary front-running style?
Either way, the presence of Huddle Up gives hope to the stretch-runners in the field. Creme Fraiche, trainer Woody Stephens' colt who won the Derby Trial, has a chance, but the main rival to Spend a Buck is El Basco, who rallied from 10th place to win the Withers Mile at Belmont Park in his last start.
Owner Diaz recognizes that Spend a Buck has a job ahead of him. "We haven't spent even a nickel of the money yet," he said. "We haven't won this race yet."