The money is always enticing—this year $176,000 awaited the winner—but the Garden State Stakes for 2-year-olds has sometimes been more of a jinx than a stepping-stone to glory. For instance, only one victor in the race, Carry Back, has gone on to take the Kentucky Derby. But never mind superstition. Never mind money. Last week more was at stake in the 19th running of the mile-and-a-sixteenth race. The outcome would decide whether a colt or a filly—Women's Lib was threatening—would be 2-year-old champion, and there also was a possibility that whoever finished first would be voted Horse of the Year.
The tussle was to be between Riva Ridge, winner of six races (he had lost two others but had good excuses for both defeats), and Numbered Account, who had been successful in eight of her nine starts and was touted as the best juvenile of her sex since Top Flight 40 years ago.
Except for dispensing buttons marked "I'm for the King" and "I'm for the Queen" to partisans in the crowd, the racetrack needed no farfetched gimmicks to build up the $294,000 event. There was genuine interest in how Numbered Account would perform; she was the first filly ever to run in the race. The opposition would be stronger than any she had faced to date, but if she won, the daughter of Buckpasser might become the first 2-year-old filly ever chosen as Horse of the Year.
The rivalry between the two was intensified because the horses were trained by a father and son. Lucien Laurin, a 59-year-old former jockey, handled Riva Ridge. Roger Laurin, 36, trained Numbered Account. Ironically, Roger had Riva Ridge in his barn earlier in the season but had given up the son of First Landing before he made his first start. At the time the younger Laurin was training for Mrs. John Tweedy, who runs Meadow Stable for her ailing father, Christopher T. Chenery, and owns Riva Ridge. However, when Eddie Neloy, the trainer of the powerful Phipps stable, died suddenly, Roger Laurin was offered that job. He took it and turned over the Tweedy horses to his father. Finding Numbered Account in the Phipps barn must have been no small solace.
"All these things are making for a good race," said Lucien Laurin before the event. "Perhaps I am more confident than I should be, but I have always believed, as they say in the trade, a good big colt should beat a good big filly. Numbered Account may be more than a good filly, of course. But were she mine I would not run her. All but one of the colts she will face have gone a mile or over this season, and that makes a difference. Maybe she'll beat the dickens out of us, but I don't think so."
The wisdom of a father can still prevail in this age of unkempt hair and unwashed blue jeans, and one of those infrequent moments occurred at Garden State on Saturday. Riva Ridge, ridden coolly and patiently by Ron Turcotte, won with ease by 2½ lengths. A 52-to-1 shot named Freetex closed rapidly to be second. A slim neck farther back was Key to the Mint, and the fabled filly had to settle for fourth. Numbered Account had maintained good position throughout the race and saved ground on the rail but she had none of her usual stretch kick this time. She was beaten a length and three-quarters by Key to the Mint and nearly 4½ lengths by Riva Ridge. With her three-pound weight allowance—119 to 122 for the colts—she had no apparent excuse. The track was fast, although deep, and the race was run in moderate time, 1:43[3/5].
The event was not as exciting as it promised to be. Explodent shot off to a wide lead at the start as Riva Ridge broke slowly. He was pinched back in the field of eight, but as the horses went up the backstretch and Explodent tired, the Tweedy colt moved into third and Numbered Account into fourth. The stage seemed set for a duel, but it never came off. Explodent quit and Key to the Mint took the lead; he held it until the eighth pole when Riva Ridge surged by. All eyes turned to Numbered Account, but as her rider Braulio Baeza stated matter-of-factly later, "She didn't run her best race." She had an open path on the inside but could not make the most of it, and from midstretch home it was a contest only for second money.
After accepting the trophy from New Jersey Governor William Cahill, Penny Tweedy attended a champagne pouring. "I really wasn't all that worried," she said. "You know, we didn't want to run our colt in this race, but when we heard the filly was going to give it a try, we couldn't very well let her win it and the titles by default, could we?"
A filly winning all the laurels—this year or any year—was a much debated question the week prior to the race. Most trainers disagreed with Roger Laurin's theory of running females against males. The capable horseman, who got his trainer's license at 17 and set out to seek his fortune with a string of horses at Maine's Scarborough Downs, declared, "No matter what age your filly or mare is, I think if she is right and if the weights are right you should run against colts. Winning never hurts a horse; losing does." Racing people, for the most part, feel that fillies can be more precocious than colts and beat them occasionally. It used to happen quite often on the old Widener Chute course at Belmont, a 6½-furlong straightaway. The more turns in a race, horsemen believe, the greater the disadvantage for a filly.
Before the big race one trainer said, "Numbered Account may be the best filly we've seen in this country in decades, but what in God's name do her people want of her? She is already the filly champion. She has such a grand future ahead of her, what they are doing to her here is criminal."
Over the years some fine fillies have beaten colts and won national acclaim. Regret is the only one ever to win a Kentucky Derby, but Top Flight beat the boys, as did First Flight, Twilight Tear, Bug Brush, Silver Spoon and, most recently, Drumtop and Shuvee. On the other hand, Priceless Gem beat Buckpasser in a Futurity and was never the same again.
Who gave the order to put Numbered Account to the supreme test? "Mr. Phipps never put any pressure on me to do anything I didn't feel was right," said Roger Laurin. "We looked at it this way: neither of us might ever again be in a position like this, able to beat the best colt in a championship race. And let's face it. If we win, we could be Horse of the Year. We came to this conclusion together and have decided it is the right thing to do."
About the same time, Lucien Laurin was offering additional reasons why, if he were Roger, he wouldn't chance running the filly. "I don't like a horse's races too close together, and Numbered Account has just won The Gardenia," Lucien said.
Former Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones was asked his opinion. In the 1940s he trained Twilight Tear and at three she beat colts; he thinks she probably could have beaten them just as well at two. He said, "If the decision to start Numbered Account were up to me, it would depend somewhat on the money situation. If I'd paid my bills I wouldn't try it. If I hadn't paid my bills—or thought I might not be able to—I would probably be tempted to take a crack at the colts."
Now that he is indisputably champion—and an earner of $503,263 (Buck-passer holds the record for 2-year-olds: $568,096)—Riva Ridge will get a well-deserved rest. "He's been to school this season," says Lucien Laurin, "and, like a kid with brains, he's been learning. He now rates easily. In this Garden State, after a poor start, he discovered it wasn't impossible to get through between horses. I've had a lot of nice horses in the 30 years I've trained—Quill, Amberoid, Drone, Dike, Jay Ray and Repeating. I think Riva Ridge may be the best of all of them."
Jack and Penny Tweedy, who first came to Garden State on a horrible rainy afternoon in 1958 when Meadow Stable's First Landing won his Garden State Stakes, hope so too. As the colt (he is named for an assault target in the Italian Apennines where Tweedy served during World War II in the 10th Mountain Division) was being led back to his barn, Mrs. Tweedy raised her glass and smiled, thinking of the future. "Wouldn't it be nice to do this over again at next year's Kentucky Derby?" she said.
The winner, Riva Ridge (No. 5), was pinched at the start, but the setback was momentary.