Don’t it always seem to go–Joni Mitchell
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They were routinely the two richest races held in the U.S. every year, their gross values exceeding any of the three Triple Crown events. Although viewed by far fewer people minus any nationwide television audience, their year-in, year-out impact on divisional championships and as stepping stones to stardom were arguably as great as the classics or any other event on the calendar.
When the two races were held on consecutive Saturdays in November 1972, few suspected they would be the respective last editions, at least in the incarnations that made them famous. As swan songs they fittingly showcased true superstars, both of whom would make the Hall of Fame.
For two decades, the Garden State Stakes and Gardenia Stakes were the not-to-be-missed double features of the fall meet at Garden State Park, located in New Jersey across the river from Philadelphia. To say they were the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies of that era is accurate, as far as that goes.
The Garden State was born in the early 1940s, soon after the legalization of pari-mutuel wagering in New Jersey. Though won by champions Double Jay and Blue Peter during its time as a sprint, the race was taken to a different level when the race was extended to 1 1/16 miles and futurity conditions were instituted in 1953.
Futurities, where potential starters are kept eligible via recurring fees paid from the time of birth until age two, have long fallen out of favor in the Thoroughbred sport though some races still falsely carry those monikers. However, for much of the mid-20th century, the richest races of the year tended to be the futurities contested in New York, Chicago, Maryland, and Garden State Park. The advantage Garden State Park’s races had over the others was their position on the calendar and the fact they were the richest contested around two turns, which proved a winning combination.
From 1953 through 1971, winners of the Garden State won eight division champions including Riva Ridge. The latter, of course, went on to capture the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Another Derby winner, Carry Back, won in 1960, while 1970 victor Run the Gantlet was voted champion turf horse the following season.
The list of the defeated is similarly impressive. Future Horses of the Year Sword Dancer and Roman Brother settled for minor awards, as did Needles, Tomy Lee, Bally Ache, Hail to All, and Amberoid, all of whom won Triple Crown races. Key to the Mint, third in 1971, was voted champion three-year-old over Riva Ridge.
The Gardenia, run 17 times from 1955 through 1971, was captured by the eventual division champion in 12 of those years, including Hall of Famers Bowl of Flowers, Cicada, and Gallant Bloom. Second best to Gallant Bloom in 1968 was another Hall of Fame inductee, Shuvee, while future three-time champion and Hall of Famer Susan’s Girl was second to Numbered Account in a hot 1971 renewal.
The 1972 editions of the Gardenia and Garden State were run on November 11 and 18, respectively. The Gardenia’s gross purse, roughly $1.15 million in today’s dollars, was won in wire-to-wire fashion by the Canadian juggernaut La Prevoyante, who capped a perfect 12-for-12 season and became the first Gardenia winner since Moccasin in 1965 to become a serious U.S. Horse of the Year contender.
That candidature took a back seat one week later in the Garden State, which carried a gross purse of nearly $1.8 million in today’s dollars. A crowd of more than 25,000 witnessed Secretariat roll to a 3 1/2-length victory over stablemate Angle Light at odds of 1-10 in a final time of 1:44.40. By comparison, older third-level allowance horses ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:46 one race before the Garden State.
The Garden State and Gardenia proved one of the victims of overreaching state governments in the 1970s, many of which were more concerned with generating tax revenue from racing 12 months out of the year rather than allowing tracks to operate on the seasonal basis many presumably preferred.
Garden State Park, which had for years split their annual allotment of dates into a spring meet and a fall meet, was assigned a single 75-day meet in 1973 that began in early February and concluded around Memorial Day. Thus the upending of the traditional racing calendar in New Jersey effectively killed Garden State Park’s juvenile features.
A race that carried the Garden State name was instituted in the mid-1980s as a prep for the Kentucky Derby and Jersey Derby, but carried no prestige beyond its first winner Spend a Buck. A revival of the Gardenia name, at the Meadowlands in 1980, proved more consistently successful, though it was gone within a decade after peaking as a Grade 2 event.
Much like the late Washington D.C. International, the Garden State and Gardenia were events of major stature at a time when the sport itself could be described as such. Their premature demise, like many of the changes that occurred within racing in that decade, was quite regrettable.