TAMPA — Elliott Fuentes, a thoroughbred racehorse breeder who was instrumental in 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck's early years, died Sunday morning of natural causes. He was 86.
Mr. Fuentes was recognized nationally as a top Florida thoroughbred breeder and consignor to prestigious bloodstock sales companies. But his love for horses started in the 1930s, back when dirt roads and dairy farms covered the area where Raymond James Stadium now stands.
He was born Aug. 5, 1928, a fourth-generation Tampa resident, having family roots in St. Augustine and Key West dating to the 1700s.
A young Fuentes, maybe 9 or 10 years old, would ride as a jockey for folks in West Tampa who held impromptu races and would gamble on their own horses, said his son, Larry Fuentes. Down the dirt road he'd spur the horses, pushing them toward victory, until he reached his full height of 5 feet 11 and outgrew his days as a jockey.
From there, he became involved with the thoroughbreds at Sunshine Park, which would later become Tampa Bay Downs, and earned his trainer's license in 1954.
Larry said he remembers when a family friend, Dennis Diaz, approached his dad and said he wanted to get in the horse racing business.
Mr. Fuentes advised Diaz to buy two mares whose pedigrees looked good on paper, if the price was right. When it was time for the deal to go through, the seller offered to throw in a young colt for $12,500.
"Dennis wasn't interested in young horses. He wanted to breed mares," Larry said. "So as an afterthought, Dennis bought the colt with my dad's advice. . . . My dad raised the colt, broke him, was the first person to put a bridle and saddle on him, and gave him his early training. That horse went on to make $4.3 million in purses."
Mr. Fuentes' daughter, Mary Ann Hamilton, remembers the thrill of the day when Spend a Buck won the Kentucky Derby. The Diaz family sent a dozen roses to Mr. Fuentes and his family on race day. "We want you to smell the roses with us," the card read.
The Diazes would later name their son, Elliott, after Mr. Fuentes.
Purchasing Spend a Buck was like winning the lottery, Larry said. His father had always been very proud of the role he played with the horse's early training and breaking.
"Just to have been that close to a horse of that caliber was very, very exciting," Hamilton said.
But his span and influence ranged much further than just one horse, his children said.
"My dad, he was just a very colorful person, but a really wonderful, warm-hearted person, too," Hamilton said.
Mr. Fuentes had his own barn out at the Downs, where he'd often cross paths with George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees who also co-owned the Downs at the time.
"He treated everyone exactly the same," said his son-in-law, Andy Hamilton. "It didn't matter if you were cleaning the stalls or if you owned the racetrack."
Mr. Fuentes also ran a cattle ranch and worked at Hayman Jewelry Co., a family business and one of the longest operating in downtown, in addition to owning Hayman Fuentes Farm in Odessa.
"He was a real cowboy," Larry said.
Stella Thayer, owner of Tampa Bay Downs, said Mr. Fuentes was one of the more prominent and devoted members of the horse racing community.
"He was an enthusiastic horseman, both breeder and owner," Thayer said. "He was respected locally and beyond, and was a big, significant participant at Tampa Bay Downs."
Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized, but services will be at Trinity Memorial Gardens, Larry said.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.