Nobody should be able to earn $2.6 million without working for it -- and Spend a Buck did indeed have to work to earn the richest prize in thoroughbred racing history today.

He had to struggle to score a photo-finish victory over Creme Fraiche and El Basco in the Jersey Derby.

But it hardly mattered that the performance was not overpowering. Spend a Buck earned a $600,000 first-place prize, plus a $2 million bonus for winning three stakes events at Garden State Park and the Kentucky Derby, and became the second-leading money winner of all time.

To do it, the colt displayed a quality in addition to the raw speed and stamina that earned him acclaim after the Derby; he had to show character.

In the Derby, and in his other stakes victories as a 3-year-old, he had taken an early lead without difficulty and was never pressured. Today, he had to fight for the entire 1 1/4 miles, prompting trainer Cam Gambolati to say, "He had to be a great horse to go through everything he did today."

Whether Spend a Buck is great is open to question, in view of his miserable time of 2:02 3/5 and the mediocrity of his competition. But there is no doubt that he went through a lot today.

When the gate opened, Spend a Buck stumbled slightly, and then rushed up to challenge Huddle Up, a California sprinter who had gunned for the early lead. They raced head and head to the first turn and onto the backstretch, covering the first quarter in :22 4/5, the half-mile in :45 2/5 and the six furlongs in an impressive 1:09.

Huddle Up was finished by now, but when Spend a Buck put the speedster away he didn't get a moment's breather. Creme Fraiche was accelerating fast on the rail, and midway around the final turn the crowd of 30,360 let out a collective gasp. Even his new jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., acknowledged, "I thought I might be in trouble."

Creme Fraiche drew abreast of the leader -- he might even have had his nose in front for a stride or two -- but Spend a Buck wouldn't let him past.

The 1-to-20 favorite fought off his second challenger thoughout the stretch run, but as he did, a third horse took dead aim at him. El Basco had come from last place, rallied wide around the turn and now was accelerating in the middle of the track. For a moment he, too, looked as if he were going to catch the leader, but Spend a Buck held him off, too. He prevailed by a neck over Creme Fraiche, with El Basco another head back in third.

Gambolati said Pincay would get 10 percent of the $2.6 million his mount earned today, even though Angel Cordero Jr. rode him in the other three races that figured in Garden State's bonus. Cordero was committed to ride Track Barron in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park and had to give up the largest single payday in the history of his profession. Moreover, he lost the mount permanently. "Laffit Pincay rides him from now on," Gambolati declared.

It seems somewhat doubtful that Spend a Buck will run in the Belmont Stakes. The colt had a hard race today and he would have to come back after 11 days' rest. Moreover, owner Dennis Diaz always has been realistic about his horse's capabilities, and his :27 3/5 final quarter today was hardly the stuff of which Belmont winners are made.

Spend a Buck has many more promising and lucrative ways to try to pass John Henry as the top money-winner of all time. Diaz and Gambolati can worry about the alternatives all the way to the bank.

Alden's Ambition, a 4-year-old filly ridden by Jesse Davidson, equaled the track record at Pimlico for six furlongs today as she galloped to an eight-length victory over For You And Me in the $30,000-added Jameela Handicap. Breathless Wind was third, a head behind For You And Me.

The winner's running time of 1:09 1/5 tied the mark set by Duck Dance in 1972. She paid $6.80. CAPTION: Picture, Spend a Buck, with Laffit Pincay aboard, holds off Creme Fraishe, ridden by Eddie Maple, to win Jersey Derby. Pincay, replacing Angel Cordero Jr. on Spend a Buck, earned $260,000. AP