It was 1971, the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, more commonly knows as Women's Lib, when women fought against what they considered male supremacy. Even the cigarette advertisers got into the act with the successful TV commercials for Virginia Slims, a cigarette designed specifically for women, with the often-used phrase "You've come a long way, baby."
It was less than two years away from the ultimate female victory over males when 29-year-old Billie Jean King defeated 55-year old Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised tennis match dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes" that drew enormous ratings. Riggs, a former professional tennis player and a great promoter, made a career of championing the male cause with his boastful claims that men could beat women at anything and that the male was the dominant species.
The Women's Lib movement hit the Sport of Kings in '71 when the best 2-year-old male in the country, Riva Ridge, took on the best 2-year-old female, Numbered Account, in the rich Garden State Stakes at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, N.J.
In racing, fillies could compete with colts at extremely short distances where nothing but pure speed was required and extremely long distances where nothing but pure stamina was required. But defeating them at middle distances was another matter. Not since the great Gallorette tangled with Stymie, Assault, and other top males in the mid-1940s had a filly competed against the boys on a regular basis.
Heading into November of ’71, females had their equine champion in the stout chestnut filly Shuvee, who had just won her second consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles. Now it was time for the best young filly in the country to meet the best young colt in the country at a distance of 1 1/16 miles to crown the 2-year-old champion of both sexes.
When it was announced that the male vs female showdown was going take place, Garden State Park quickly jumped all over it, promoting it as racing's “Battle of the Sexes.” It was so big there was a special bus from Port Authority in New York City that went directly to the racetrack, returning to New York after the race. Even New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill showed up to present the trophy.
I had been working at the old Morning Telegraph for two years, most of it as head librarian. This was such a big event I couldn't miss it, so I went into Manhattan and caught the bus to Garden State.
As soon as I arrived I was greeted by men and women handing out buttons that read "I like the King in the Garden State" in blue lettering and "I like the Queen in the Garden State" in red lettering. Supposedly blue was a man's color and red was a woman's color. I naturally took one of each, being a fan of both horses.
But behind all the hype were two sensational horses and future Hall of Famers who were battling for the title of best 2-year-old in America. And they were joined by a cast of talented young colts who were looking to steal the show. To add to the drama was the fact that Riva Ridge and Numbered Account were trained by father and son. Lucien Laurin, who had recently taken over the training of Christopher Chenery's Meadow Stable, saddled Riva Ridge, and his son Roger, who had recently taken over the horses owned by Ogden Phipps, sent out Numbered Account.
But that wasn't all. Roger had actually been recently hired as trainer for Meadow Stud, which was going through tough times financially, and with Chenery battling a long illness and incapacitated, his daughter, Penny Tweedy, was summoned from her home and family in Colorado to run the stable. Some might say to save the Virginia-based empire her father had built.
Roger had been high on Riva Ridge before he even ran, but when he was offered the job as trainer for the powerful Phipps Stable following the death of their trainer Eddie Neloy in May of 1971, he couldn't refuse. Upon leaving Meadow Stable he recommended his father for the job.
Lucien, who was planning on retiring from training at the time, had been a successful trainer, winning the Belmont Stakes with Amberoid and other major stakes with Quill, Dike, and others for Claiborne Farm, owned Bull Hancock, who had had close ties to Phipps, standing his prized stallion Buckpasser and Phipps' mother Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps' brilliant champion Bold Lad. Hancock also had done business with Chenery for years. When Penny Tweedy offered Lucien the Meadow Stable job he thought it over and decided to accept, giving up his plans for retirement.
So, here was Roger with his new owner up against his former employer now trained by his father. Little did Roger or Lucien know what the future would hold for Riva Ridge and how he would help save Meadow Stud, or of a yearling at the farm by Claiborne's great sire Bold Ruler, out of the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal who was destined for immortality and whose name would live on as the standard by which all great horses are measured. He would later be named Secretariat.
But for now, it was all about Riva Ridge and Numbered Account. Both horses were very similar, almost the same height, with the filly being less than an inch taller, and each girthing 73 1/2 inches. What was most distinguishable was that both had lop ears, giving the impression they had kind and gentle dispositions, which they did. That made them even more appealing.
On the racetrack, however, they were fierce competitors who had dominated their respective divisions. But in the beginning, Riva Ridge proved to be a timid sort who was intimidated by other horses when in close quarters. In his career debut he was bet down to 2-1 but was bumped soundly at the start and never ran a lick. Laurin put blinkers on him for his next start, in which he would face a colt who would become his arch-rival over the next three years. He was a regally bred son of Graustark named Key to the Mint, a handsome bay half-brother to the great grass star Fort Marcy who had near-flawless conformation and an air of nobility about him. His reputation preceded him and he was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Riva Ridge 2-1. The pair went head ad head early before Riva Ridge asserted himself and drew off to a 5 1/2-length victory.
After that, with the exception of the Great American Stakes, in which he had to steady and spread a shoe, Riva Ridge was unbeatable. After the Great American, his jockey Ron Turcotte worked with him in the morning teaching him how to relax behind horses and harness his speed. Riva responded by sitting off the pace in the six-furlong Flash Stakes at Saratoga and winning handily in 1:09 4/5, three-fifths off the track record. After the race, Turcotte proclaimed Riva “the best 2-year-old I’ve ever sat on.”
Then came one dominating score after another in the Futurity Stakes, the Champagne Stakes by seven lengths, and the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity, in which he toyed with his rivals, coasting to an 11-length victory.
Numbered Account’s record was even more impressive, with eight victories in nine starts, starting with a 10-length blowout in her career debut, followed by victories in the Fashion, Schuylerville, Spinaway (equaling Riva Ridge’s near-record time in the Flash), Matron by 6 1/2 lengths, Frizette by seven lengths, Selima by six lengths, and Gardenia Stakes by almost three lengths defeating future Hall of Famer Susan’s Girl.
Normally that would have been the end of one of the greatest 2-year-old campaigns of all time. But whether it was the decision of Roger Laurin or Ogden Phipps, they were determined to crown Numbered Account the best 2-year-old in the country regardless of sex. Here was Laurin with the horse he had facing the horse he could have had.
The Garden State Stakes on Nov. 13 was only one week after the Gardenia and Numbered Account already had a long campaign that had begun back in May. And to wheel her right back in a week and take on Riva Ridge was asking a lot. But that didn’t stop them. Back then, racing a week apart was much more common than it is now.
This was Girl Power at its finest. As daunting a presence as Riva Ridge was, the Numbered Account camp felt she was unbeatable. But Riva wasn’t the only obstacle. Also in the field was Key to the Mint, who had been beaten soundly by Riva Ridge in the Futurity Stakes, but came back to score in the Garden State Prep stretching out to two turns and then, with the addition of blinkers, won another allowance race in a sharp 1:22 3/5 for the seven furlongs. He, too, would be coming right back in a week.
There was also the multiple stakes winner Chevron Flight, who had won the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park and Christiana Stakes at Delaware Park and had beaten Riva Ridge in the Great American. The pace was expected to be dictated by the speedy Explodent, a recent winner at Garden State, and there was the 52-1 shot Freetex, a winner of two stakes at Liberty Bell Park.
Riva Ridge was sent off as the even-money favorite by the crowd of over 32,000, with Numbered Account 2-1 and Key to the Mint next at 5-1. Appropriately, Riva Ridge broke from post 5, with Numbered Account right next to him in post 4.
At the start, Riva Ridge hesitated slightly and then was sent up between horses to get a good position in fourth. Explodent, as expected, shot to a four-length lead, followed by Key to the Mint, while jockey Braulio Baeza had Numbered Account back in seventh with only Freetex behind her. Turcotte brought Riva Ridge to the outside and pulled up alongside Key to the Mint, as Explodent was still winging out there by three lengths through a half in :47. Numbered Account moved up and was now only a length behind Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint.
Key to the Mint was the first to go after Explodent and had him collared nearing the quarter pole, with Riva Ridge in hot pursuit. Numbered Account was still in striking distance and Baeza elected to go inside and try to come up the rail. Riva Ridge, going best of all, stuck his head in front at the eighth pole, as Numbered Account maintained her position, but it was obvious she was not going to threaten Riva Ridge, who began to draw away.
Riva crossed the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front in a respectable 1:43 3/5, with Freetex rallying late to nip Key to the Mint for second, as Numbered Account had to settle for fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths. Baeza said afterward she simply “didn’t run her best race.” It was just too much to ask of her, making her 10th start of the year, nine of them in stakes races, and coming back one week after her Gardenia triumph.
So, Riva Ridge had won it for the boys. He would go on to win the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Hollywood Derby, Blue Grass, and Hibiscus Stakes the following year, but had the 3-year-old championship snatched away from him by Key to the Mint, who defeated older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney before winning the Travers and then beating Riva Ridge for the championship in the Woodward Stakes.
Lucien Laurin and Penny Tweedy had made a huge mistake that may have eventually cost Riva the title when they sent him to California for the mile and a quarter Hollywood Derby carrying 129 pounds just three weeks after the Belmont Stakes. Riva, conceding a lot of weight to some talented colts, was gutted as he turned back several challenges to win by a neck in a blistering 1:59 3/5. He didn’t win another race for the rest of the year.
Riva got his revenge on Key to the Mint the following year when he beat him in the Brooklyn Handicap at Aqueduct setting a new world’s record. The last of their 10 meetings came in the inaugural Marlboro Cup when Riva finished second to his stablemate, Triple Crown winner Secretariat, again in world-record time. Key to the Mint was not himself and staggered home in seventh.
Riva would go on to set another track record when he won the 1 1/8-mile Stuyvesant Handicap in 1:47 carrying 130 pounds. Following a poor effort in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was well beyond his scope, he was retired to Claiborne Farm.
As a side note, Freetex proved to be one of the most inconsistent horses in the country. When he wasn’t finishing up the track, he managed to win the Gotham at 31-1, the Ohio Derby at 13-1, and the Monmouth Invitational Handicap at 11-1, a race in which Penny Tweedy claimed that Riva Ridge, who finished a lackluster fourth, had been drugged. Mrs. Tweedy ordered blood and urine tests taken, and although there were traces of a tranquilizer found, it was not strong enough at that time to be considered a positive, and no action was taken.
As for Numbered Account, she would go on to have a good 3-year-old campaign, winning the Spinster, Matchmaker, Test, and Prioress Stakes, but was not nearly as dominant as she was at 2. As a broodmare, she produced grade 1 winners Dance Number, dam of champion Rhythm, and Private Account, sire of the great Personal Ensign and champion Inside Information.
So ended one of racing’s most anticipated showdowns. Five and a half years later, Garden State Park was destroyed in a fire. In 1980, a filly finally made national headlines against the boys when Genuine Risk became the first female to win the Kentucky Derby since Regret in 1915.
On April 21, 1985, Riva Ridge returned to his paddock at Claiborne Farm after breeding a mare and fell to the ground. The help rushed to his aid, but he was already dead, the victim of a heart attack. Riva Ridge, one of the kindest horses you’ll ever be around, was only 16.
Numbered Account ironically also died in her paddock at Claiborne Farm but lived until the age of 27.
Riva Ridge and Numbered Account are buried in separate cemeteries at Claiborne, but they will be forever linked by the 1971 Garden State Stakes when they fought for supremacy in the Battle of the Sexes.