The Year New Jersey Stole the Triple Crown

In 1985 America was in a state of flux.  The economy was changing, as factories closed and moved to places where cheap labor could be had.  Ronald Reagan was three months into his second term as President and “greed is good” was the theme on Wall Street.

Horse racing, which had occupied the top rung of the sports ladder in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, was in its second decade of a gradual decline.

By 1985, it had become a niche sport.  But, unlike most niche sports, horse racing still had and still has the one big event that captivates America — the Kentucky Derby.  TV ratings prove that Derby Day is still part of America’s fabric and soul.

Interest spikes, but it doesn’t last and, by the time the Preakness rolls around, half the audience has vanished.

The 1970s saw three horses — Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) — win Triple Crowns.  The 1980s would see no Triple Crowns; neither would the 1990s and 2000s, but, at the time, who knew?  There were some great thoroughbreds that roamed race courses in the 1980s.  Genuine Risk became the first filly to win the Derby since Regret in 1915 and had she not gotten bumped by Codex in the Preakness, she might have shown up at Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown.  Winning Colors became the third filly to win in 1988 with Gary Stevens aboard and, yes, it is the same Gary Stevens that still rides today.  Alysheba, Ferdinand, Gato del Sol and Swale also come to mind when you bring up 1980s racing.

Because horse racing is not a bread-and-butter sport, those who love it get nervous.  Many think that if tweaks are made, Americans will come running back. But the truth is: Americans interests change and change often.  The old saying “here today, gone tomorrow” has never been more accurate.  Horse racing, to its credit, has managed to hang in there.  Like golf, there are four major events that garner attention — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup.

Most fringe sports can’t make that claim.

Many think that a Triple Crown-winning horse will revive interest in the sport.  How many times have you heard that if this horse can win the Belmont, it will do wonders for the sport?  In 2015, American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought when he ran a sublime Belmont to become 12th Triple Crown winner.  He captured our fancy… but it was short-lived.

Others think that Triple Crown races should be spread out more to make sure that horses are rested enough to be competitive in all three races.  You always hear this when a Funny Cide, Smarty Jones or Big Brown fails in the Belmont Stakes after winning the first two legs.

You also have those who think “new shooters” should be limited or banned from races.  This brings back images of Steve Coburn calling the new shooters “cowards” after Tonalist beat his California Chrome in the 2014 Belmont.

In 1985, it had only been seven years since Affirmed became the 11th horse to win the Triple Crown.  The panic that would come later had not yet set in, so a field of 13 prepared for the running of the Kentucky Derby.

One of the horses that ran in the ‘85 Derby was Spend A Buck and even though he was bred in Kentucky, his connections to New Jersey forever changed the sport of thoroughbred racing.  In early ‘85, the son of Buckaroo began his 3-year old campaign with a third-place finish in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct.

In those days, the ticket to the Kentucky Derby was through earnings in graded stakes races and, back then, it didn’t matter what the grade was; it was the purse size that mattered.  Under this formula, horses could run in races that lacked great competition in order to pick up enough money to get into the field for the Kentucky Derby.

Today, races like the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby are used for horses to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, with horses picking up valuable points along the way. And while money is important, for the Derby, it’s not as important as getting those points.

Spend A Buck’s connections didn’t worry about points, but they did want the money and they chose the newly reopened Garden State Park Race Track, which had been destroyed by fire in 1977, for his next race on April 6 — the Cherry Hill Mile.  The track’s manager was Robert Brennan and, as a way to attract attention for the “new” facility, he offered a $2 million bonus for a horse that could win the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby.  After winning the Cherry Hill Mile, Spend A Buck took the Garden State Stakes on April 20.  The Kentucky Derby was two weeks away and Spend A Buck was halfway home to the Jersey Grand Slam and that $2 million bonus.

At the Derby, he was sent off as the second choice at odds of 4-1.  Ridden by Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, he went to the front and sawed off quick factions.  He drilled the half in 45 and 4/5 seconds and, at the six-furlong mark, had an eight-length lead.  In the stretch, it looked like they were closing, but Buck found another gear and pulled away impressively to win by seven lengths.

It was a spine-tingling effort.  Not only did he wire the field, but his final time was 2:00 1/5 — at that time, the third-fastest in history behind two legends in Secretariat and “The Great Canadian,” Northern Dancer.

It was a dominant performance and if you haven’t watched it, I implore you to check it out on YouTube.  As soon as the race ended, ABC broadcaster Jim McKay had two questions for his viewing audience.  The first was “Is Spend A Buck a superhorse?”  And the second was “Could he be a Triple Crown winning horse?”

We all know that the Derby winner, if he comes out of the race healthy, heads to Pimlico to occupy Barn 40 in preparation for the Preakness Stakes on the third Saturday in May.  In this case, there was a dilemma for the connections of Spend A Buck.  Do they pursue Triple Crown glory or do they chase that bonus put forth by Brennan?

The choice came down to the Preakness or the Jersey Derby scheduled for May 27. Spend A Buck was one win away from a $2 million bonus and two wins away from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner.  It was a battle between the state of New Jersey and the state of Maryland.  It was also a battle of tradition and prestige versus the almighty dollar and that enormous payday.

In the end, the connections settled on the Jersey Derby and a chance to grab that $2 million prize.

At the Preakness, Tank’s Prospect stormed past Chief’s Crown to win in what was then a stakes-record time of 1:53 2/5, so to say Spend A Buck would have won is taking a big, big leap.  He would have been the favorite, but in horse racing, assumptions can never be made.

The Jersey Derby turned out to be a heckuva horse race.  Spend a Buck was sent off at 1-9, but he got all he could handle, prevailing over two very game horses in El Basco (third) and Crème Fraiche(second), who, just weeks later, would win the Belmont Stakes.  The time was 2:02 3/5, but more importantly, that $2 million bonus was his.

The defection of Spend a Buck rankled the horse racing world.  The purists couldn’t believe that the connections would choose a lower graded race over the prestige of the Preakness and the potential of a Triple Crown.

The Preakness has always suffered from an inferiority complex, because horses that don’t run well — or at least, decently — in the Derby almost always skip the middle jewel.  Todd Pletcher will run three to five horses in the Derby, but have you ever heard of him pointing any one of them to the Preakness? Still, even Pletcher would not skip it with a Derby winner.  He may not enjoy running back in two weeks, but he wouldn’t pass over the race like the handlers of Spend A Buck did.  There is a sense of owing something to the sport — so on to the Preakness goes the Derby winner.  And, let’s be honest: these three races are the only time of the year when the mainstream media is paying close attention.

Spend A Buck authored change.  Ten years later, Visa put up a $5 million bonus to any horse that could capture the Triple Crown. This encouraged the handlers of the Derby winner to forge ahead to the Preakness and kept people like Brennan at bay.  Visa never had to pay that bonus and, in 2005, it pulled its sponsorship.

Nonetheless, barring something unforeseen, the Derby winner always heads to Pimlico to race in the Preakness and the chance to win the Triple Crown.  And the Preakness has always provides great drama.  For proof, I offer the 1989 Sunday Silence-Easy Goer edition as well as Bodemeister-I’ll Have Another tilt in 2012. And who can forget Curlin gunning down Street Sense in 2007?

The other change came in 2013 when the Kentucky Derby points system began.  Now, the pre-Derby races are selected and if you don’t run in them, you won’t get the points to qualify.  It has certainly made for an exciting build-up.  Now, we examine each race and performance.  Was the winning performance in the Wood Memorial better than that in the Santa Anita Derby?

No longer can a horse run in a Cherry Hill Mile or a Garden State Stakes if no points are offered.  Spend A Buck did nothing wrong of course; he ran, he won and he made enough money to qualify for the Derby. But the Derby was the only Triple Crown race that this fabulous horse ran in.  In 15 career starts, he had 10 firsts, three seconds and two thirds and $4,220,689 in earnings.  After finishing second to Skip Trial (a horse he defeated in the Jersey Derby) in the Haskell, he won the Monmouth Handicap and headed off to stud.

His Derby performance was supreme.  I will always wonder what could have been had he run at Pimlico two weeks later.  But, some wise guys from New Jersey, the Garden State, had other ideas.  They wooed away Spend A Buck by dangling a $2 million carrot in front of him and that was simply too much to pass up.

Garden State Park Race Track was torn down in 2001 and though Monmouth remains, it has faced its share of struggles over the years.

But there once was a time when New Jersey took center stage and dominated the horse racing scene.  They stole the show when they stole Spend A Buck from the Preakness, the Belmont and the Triple Crown.  We’ll never know if Spend A Buck could have won the Crown, because New Jersey rolled the dice and snatched the Derby winner away, altering horse racing history forever.

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