HIALEAH, Fla. — Cam Gambolati's life has returned to normal. The 36-year-old trainer makes few visits to the winner's circle. His name appears in no headlines. The thoroughbreds in his stable are, for the most part, "bad horses who can't run."
There are countless trainers like Gambolati, and all of them share the same implausible dream: Finding a cheap horse blessed with exceptional talent who develops into a champion.
But unlike most of his brethren, Gambolati doesn't have to fantasize. He only has to go home, pop a tape in the videocassette player and relive the 1985 campaign of Spend a Buck.
At the start of the year, Gambolati was little known even at the Florida tracks where he stabled his horses. He had won only a handful of races in his brief career. So when Spend a Buck developed into a prominent Kentucky Derby contender at this time last year, the trainer had every reason to feel intimidated.
"Before the Derby, everybody told me, 'Get ready! Get ready!' but the pressure didn't faze me in the least," Gambolati said. "I could hardly believe the sight of those 100,000 maniacs at the race, but I felt good because I knew the horse was at the top of his game. It was only after he won the Derby that I felt pressure. Everything he did was involved in controversy--the jockey, the Lasix, the Preakness and the Jersey Derby."
The decision by owner Dennis Diaz to bypass the Triple Crown and run in the Jersey Derby triggered a storm of controversy, and Gambolati was caught in the middle.
"Before you're on top," he said, "everybody is rooting for you, but when you're on top it's a different story. In the days after the Kentucky Derby, my phone never stopped ringing. And the Jersey Derby was grueling. At Churchill Downs, the attention was spread around all the horses, but at Garden State it was all on me."
Even after Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby, Gambolati didn't get to relax much. The colt had been syndicated and, the trainer said, "When you've got 40 people who have invested in the horse, it's a lot more pressure. It gets to you mentally."
When the syndicate decided to retire Spend a Buck, Gambolati was simultaneously disappointed and relieved. And he was immediately jolted back to the realities of life in a tough profession.
"I know I was lucky," Gambolati said. "I'd like to have the opportunity to do it again, but I don't have high-priced horses like Woody Stephens and Wayne Lukas. Right now, I'm trying to regroup."
Gambolati is trying to assemble a decent stable, but he hasn't had much success, even against the weak competition at Hialeah at this time of year. It is quite possible that training Spend a Buck will prove to be his one and only fling in the upper echelon of the racing game.
But if that is the case, he will at least have the satisfaction of knowing he did it right. Plenty of established big-time trainers have been rattled by the pressure of races like the Derby and have made critical errors of judgment that hurt their horses. Gambolati made virtually no mistakes in his management of Spend a Buck, and the colt won the horse-of-the-year title as a result. "That's something," Gambolati said, "that you can savor forever."