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Tom McEwen

The late Tom McEwen, sports editor of The Tampa Times from 1958-62 before being named sports editor of The Tampa Tribune in 1962, graced the Tribune sports section with his award-winning column, The Morning After, and his Breakfast Bonus notes columns were a signature offering from the 19-time Florida Sports Writer of the Year. McEwen died in June, 2011 at the age of 88. His wife, Linda, occasionally contributes past columns and exerpts to this blog.

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Day of Miracles at Churchill

Posted Apr 29, 2012 by

Updated May 1, 2012 at 09:34 PM

When the sun shines on Louisville next Saturday and the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” are played and sung, this historic drama which is played every May at Churchill Downs will resume. Everyone gets a little teary eyed during the music, the stands are full, the luxury boxes are full and betting is on the miinds of all. George Steinbrenner, the Head Yankee, always tried to have the right horse and win the Derby but never did. We all wanted him to win, it would have pleased him so.

Tom was one of the finest turf writers of this century, he understood the sport and the people involved, so he always got a good story, both from the rich and the not rich. He and I got up early to go to the barns before dawn to see the horses exercise, great to see these beautiful horses up close.
Below is one of Tom’s fine stories about our local hometown winner, it was a first for Tampa.

- Linda

Day of Miracles

May 5, 1985

Many belief the single greatest challenge in sports comes on the First Saturday in May, each spring. On that day, the Kentucky Derby is run. The entries can be only three years old, will run a mile and an eighth for the first time in their young lives. They will never qualify again for they will never be three again. They will never first timers at that distance, never again Run For the Roses. This about a long shot horse, long shot trainer, and a long shot owner, who won it, and at near record time.

LOUISVILLE - In the murky world of half sleep, between 4:10 and 4:30 Saturday morning, Cam Gambolati ran the 1985 Kentucky Derby four or five times.

Each time, in his dozing dream of what lay 13 hours ahead, his own real life dream horse won.

But he couldn’t lie there in his hotel room any longer. Spend A Buck might lose even in his dreams, so he got up, dressed and headed for Barn 42 at Churchill Downs.
He had spent much of the evening before waiting on his rider, Angel Cordero, at Butler Aviation, but when Cordero’s charter was delayed, he left word for him to
take a taxi, which he did.

Meanwhile, some members of the Spend A Buck Extended Family (Carmine Iavarone, Michael Terrell plus two) spent Derby Eve dining at the Sixth Avenue Restaurant in downtown Louisville where, wonder of wonders, they found themselves seated quite accidentally beside Rowe Harp­er, the Owensboro, Ky., breeder from whom and Dennis Diaz and Linda Diaz of Tampa had bought the colt that was Spend A Buck for $12,500 because Diaz liked the looks of the colt running around the pasture Harper owned.

“At the time,” said this luckless man, Harper, “I wanted to keep a part of the mother and son (Spend A Buck and his mama) but it wasn’t possible. Still I am certainly for him Saturday. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m back in the business but living in Texas.”

Meantime, while our little fringe group of the Spend A Buck/Diaz family group were in a Derby Eve dinner in the Sixth Avenue Restaurant in Louisville. Linda and Dennis Diaz, theTampa/Odessa couple who bought the yearling, the

Diaz’ of Tampa were involved in a family party Ted Mims gave them at his Lexington home. Mims is the former University of Tampa football player who is now a banker, who told Diaz of the Rowe financial plight and need to sell the crop that included Spend A Buck.

“It was a quiet family party,” said Diaz said later. “We took everybody, including little Elliott Hunter,” their 19 months old adopted son for whom their
Odessa farm was named. “He’s going to be with us at the Derby, too. You know, the real surprise on Derby Eve is how we were bet so heavily. Gosh.”

Before betting began Saturday, Spend A Buck shared people’s choice role with Chief’s Crown at 9-2.

“I don’t like to be the favorite,” said Gambolati, “but, what can you do?”

He said this on Derby Saturday morning at Churchill Downs when, as trainer he led Spend A Buck to the track from Barn 42 with Bobby Velez in the saddle. up and with owner Diaz and this chronicler of the special day alongside Gambolati on the early morning walk. As he watched horse against the grain, in the opposite direction he would run in the Derby 11 hours later that afternoon, Gambolati explained the reverse run.

“That’s so he won’t get excited,” said Gambolati.

Workout rider Bobby Velez said he is just fine,” said Diaz. “He’s my weathervane. I feel good.”

“So do I,” said Gambolati, the trainer, and so did Diaz. I was just happy to be there.
“I’ve done my work,’’ said Gambolati, a Derby trainer for the first time, as was Diaz a first time owner there, as was an Odessa based Thoroughbred there for the first time. “All there is for me now is to saddle him in the paddock. The rest is up to Cordero and the horse. I have told Cordero to feel him out the first quarter. I’d like to see it run in about 23 or 23 1/5or 23 2/5,no faster.

“The worry again is to get hooked up in a breakneck pace with Eternal Prince. He has the speed to come over from the l0th spot. By the turn I’d like for him to be laying just behind Eternal Prince. If that happens and the pace there is not too fast, I’ll be happy.”

After the brief Derby Day work, Gambolati went back to his motel .where he and his good friend, Roger Laurin, trainer of Chief’s Crown, would pass the time together until 1:30. Then it would be back to the track so “I can be with the people I work with.

“You know I could feel the tension this morning. Everyone around the barns was talking softer, by about three decibels. Even my own people were quieter. It’ll stay that way and then about an hour before the race, my palms will begin to sweat. I’ll use a dozen napkins wiping my palms.

“Roger and I are in the same barn so we’ll visit each other 20 times. My horse has to go but a mile and a quarter. I’ll do 90 miles of pacing, then walk the mile with my horse to the paddock, turn him over to Angel and it will be up to them from then on. All I can do is watch.” As the afternoon wore on the tensions grew around the barns.

Brian Hurst, owner with George Steinbrenner of Eternal Prince, told Laurin and Gambolati they looked like they were going to the electric chair.

At 5 p.m. came the call to the post, the walk around the track before the great crowd, and then to the paddock for saddling.  Spend A Buck acted as if it were a walk in the afternoon sun in Odessa. In the paddock, despite the noise and cameras, he remained calm.

Gambolati then took his place in the stands with the family. Dennis and Linda Diaz had their youngster, Hunter, with them. It was indeed a family scene.

Put simply, Spend A Buck broke cleanly from his 10 spot, swept across the field to the rail, went to a five-length lead and then discouraged a move by the favored Chiefs Crown and won the Kentucky Derby by those five lengths.

My goodness.  Let me tell you this. This grand horse, this bargain of the century ($12,500), this 3-year-old prodigy broken and early-raised in Hillsborough County, now racing out of Hillsborough County, this storybook horse, who tomorrow could be syndicated for $20 million, won the Derby in a margin of victory like no horse since 1946, by the third fastest winner in Derby history, and, Cordero said, “he could have run 2 miles in front of them horses.”

“No,” said Diaz, “I wasn’t worried about his lead. God never made a perfect horse.

He’s not perfect. But he can run like the wind.

“When he took that lead, I said it was over. Nobody has ever caught this horse.”

You have to wonder if anyone will. He truly ran relaxed, or appeared to. Cordero confirmed he was relaxed and trainer Gambolati said, “he wasn’t tired at all, hardly blowing. He could have kept running. Unbelievable.’‘

So when history was over, Gambolati, once a one time laundromat owner, one-time chief statistician for the Buccaneers, would be among those of the Spend A Buck Family celebrating at the Executive West Saturday night for his once in a lifetime achievement, though not over-doing it. That has been, is and will still be the style of this assembly of horse folks who have now done what they set out to do, though their chapters in the Thoroughbred business was not yet done.

Dennis’ mom, Wanda would be among them who confessed, “I tried to get Dennis to get into the business. I told him had a nice business,” selling insurance. That was but a few years ago. The miracle of miracles happened and it had happened without fluke. Spend A Buck is for real. He beat the best under best conditions.

“What do I feel? I feel elation, happiness, appreciation for family and friends,” said Dennis.

“Did this really happen?”

Miracle or miracles it did, Dennis, and Cam, and Linda, and Mary Hale and Bobby and the rest of the Family.

And it ain’t over yet.

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