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The 1985 Kentucky Derby: Manchester Native's Glory Days

Cam Gambolati of Manchester trained the winner of the 1985 Derby and shook up the racing world

Time Magazine referred to the 1985 Kentucky Derby winner, Spend A Buck, as the “bay bullet” with good reason.

The 3-year old bay, sired by Buckaroo and trained by Manchester native Cam Gambolati, sprinted to the lead when the starting gate opened and was never headed, winning the 111th Kentucky Derby at storied Churchill Downs in wire to wire fashion by a comfortable 5 ¼ lengths. The expected speed duel between the winner and Eternal Prince never materialized, as Eternal Prince – owned by New York Yankees’ boss George Steinbrenner – broke poorly from the fifth gate and was steadied going into the first turn, thereby losing all chance. Gambolati’s horse, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. was the beneficiary of an unpressured pace on the lead and coasted home with ease, recording the fourth fastest time in Derby history at the classic distance of 10 furlongs (1 ¼ miles).

Spend A Buck’s internal mile split time of 1:34 and 4/5ths remains the fastest mile split in the history of the Derby. In the 137 years of Kentucky Derby competition, Cam Gambolati remains the only Connecticut native ever to train a Derby winner.

 At first, Gambolati’s horse seemed the unlikeliest of winners. Gambolati was relatively new to the game. He had been most recently a statistician with the then lowly Tampa Bay Bucs of the NFL and a laundromat owner. The owner of the grandson of Buckpasser was a guy named Dennis Diaz, a 38-year old real estate mogul from Florida. Diaz plunked down $12,500 – chump change even then for a Derby contender – and bought Spend A Buck. He began racing at Calder Race Course in Florida, then and now a second tier track.

But talk about beginner’s luck! Under Gambolati’s tutelage, Spend A Buck would race for 2 years, win 10 of 15 starts, set 3 track records, and amass earnings of over $ 4.2 million. Going off at just over 4-1, Spend a Buck paid $10.20 to win, $5.40 to place, and $3.40 to show. Later that year he was awarded Horse of the Year honors, despite the fact that Gambolati and Diaz chose a post-Derby course of action that shook up the thoroughbred racing world.

 Normally, a Derby winner who emerges healthy from his Louisville triumph will automatically head toward the second leg of the prestigious Triple Crown: the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore. However, that was not the path chosen by Gambolati and Diaz; instead, they opted for the Jersey Derby at the now defunct Garden State Racetrack in order to collect a $2 million New Jersey bonus to be given that spring to any 3-year old horse who won three stakes races in the Garden State, along with the Kentucky Derby. Since Spend A Buck had already won two Jersey stakes prior to the Derby, he qualified for the bonus. Defying tradition, Gambolati and Diaz chased the big bonus money and skipped the Preakness, much to the chagrin of the racing world. Gambolati and Spend A Buck won the Jersey Derby by a neck over Hall Of Famer Woody Stephens’ gritty gelding, Crème Fraiche, himself a previous winner of the Belmont Stakes.

 The gods of racing were not happy, however. Kentucky Derby winners are expected to compete in the Triple Crown. As a consequence of Spend A Buck’s defection from the Preakness, the racing industry set up a $5 million bonus for the next Triple Crown winner, thereby providing an enormous financial incentive to stay on the Triple Crown trail. Interestingly, no horse has won that bonus established by Spend A Buck’s defection, as there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

 Spend A Buck injured an ankle in training for the Pennsylvania Derby in August of 1985 and was retired to stud duty in Louisiana. He remained there until 2001 when his rights were sold to a breeding group in Brazil. In the following year, Spend A Buck died at age 20 in Brazil. The 1985 Kentucky Derby winner sired 30 stakes winners before his death, including Antespend, who won 3 Grade I events and became a millionaire.

Manchester native Cam Gambolati continues to be a Florida-based trainer. He has not had another marquee runner like Spend A Buck, but that may change soon. Gambolati now trains horses for University of Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino, and has some good prospects emerging. One of those prospects is Soaring Empire, son of Belmont Stakes winner, Empire Maker. Soaring Empire began his 2011 campaign with a win in the Hal’s Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida on Jan. 8. Scheduled to run last Saturday in Belmont’s Westchester Stakes, Soaring Empire was scratched for reasons unknown. He will probably run again either at Belmont or at Jersey’s Monmouth Park – Gambolati’s favorite place to race in the summer – later this spring. So far this year Gambolati has started 18 horses and has 1 win, 5 seconds, and 4 thirds. His horses have won $198,940. Fittingly, a Grade III stakes race at Calder has been named after Gambolati’s most famous charge—Spend A Buck. The Spend A Buck Handicap is run at a distance of a mile and 1/16th on the dirt in mid October. It is a race for 3-year olds. You can be sure that whenever it is run, Cam Gambolati will remember the glory days of 1985 when the Manchester native caught lightning in a bottle and won the prestigious “Run for the Roses” on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

To see a replay of the 1985 Derby, click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-MRD9QutB8

To see an interview with Cam Gambolati about Soaring Empire, click here: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWO6zclJxis

Notes and Sources:

1. equibase.com

2. Time Magazine May 13, 1985

3. derbymuseum.org

4. thoroughbredtimes.com

Loretta May 05, 2011 at 01:36 PM
Very informative article.
Kay Bagwell May 05, 2011 at 01:53 PM
A very interesting article indeed. I thought I knew many of the derby winners but never heard of 'Spend a Buck'. It's too bad they sent him off to stud in Brazil. Many horses live to be much older than 20. I will surely keep my eye out for future trained horses by our CT native trainer. Great info.
Annie Gentile May 05, 2011 at 02:17 PM
Pretty cool that the trainer was from Manchester! Interesting article.
Rory Ruane May 06, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Another winner from Phil Devlin. Hartford born Jim Murray, one of the greatest turf writers of all time, would have given this piece on Manchester trainor Cam Cambolati high marks. When can we expect Mr. Devlin to revisit the story of Hartford born jockey Mike Manganello who rode Dust Commander to a Kentucky Derby win in 1970? Rory Ruane
David Moran May 06, 2011 at 01:50 AM
Rory, Believe me when I say we are very glad to have Phil's writing here on Manchester Patch! I'll talk to him about an article on Mike in the future. Dave M.

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