By Barbara D. Livingston
© 2001 Adapted from an article published in NEW YORK THOROUGHBRED,
printed by New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Saratoga Springs, NY.
High above the town of Amsterdam, New York, on a beautiful hilltop shrouded by trees, lies the final resting-place of the Sanford family. Its members rest in growing anonymity, each year the echoes of their contributions becoming more faint. Yet the debt the racing world owes this family increases with each succeeding equine generation.
On a nearby hill, hidden behind a small, crumbling barn, a unique treasure of New York’s racing history lies abandoned in deep grass. These monuments are virtually unseen, perhaps forever lost. They are among the last physical reminders of the great Sanford Stud Farms, and of an incredible family’s odyssey into the world of racing. The lonely winds of Amsterdam blow .between the monuments—the winds alone touching the great names carved in gray stone.
In the 1870s, when Stephen Sanford’s doctor recommended he get hobby, Stephen began a Thoroughbred farm in the same way he did everything: on a grand scale. He had already turned his father’s carpet business into the largest employer in Amsterdam, a town nestled in the Mohawk Valley.
Purchasing three adjacent properties on a windswept hillside above town, Stephen Sanford began his Hurricana Stud in 1880. Lured by the incredible beauty of the Mohawk Valley, he named the farm in homage to the strong winds. Stephen’s new love of racing became an addiction not Just for him, but for the next two Sanford generations.
The farm would have success for nearly a century, but those early years at Hurricana were truly its glory days. The Sanford silks first appeared about 1880 with the horse Post Guard, and by the 1890s Stephen began acquiring outside horses and bloodlines. He set a goal for himself: to raise great horses.
Years later, Stephen’s grandson Laddie referred to Potomac, the farm’s first stallion, as “the real start of the stud.” During his racing career, Potomac won the much-coveted Futurity, amassing earnings of about $118,500—a large sum for the 1890s. Voter, winner of the 1900 Toboggan Handicap, joined the stallion ranks, as did Grammont, Isidor, Consalvo, Clifford and others.
Clifford, the best racehorse of the group, won 42 of his 64 starts while being unplaced only twice. Along the way, he gained a famous admirer in legendary heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, who visited the horse not just during Clifford’s racing career but also during his stud years at Hurricana.
Around 1893 Stephen Sanford also purchased the top mare La Tosca for $12,000. As a racemare she won the 1891 Swift Stakes, and earned the endearing nickname “my beautiful La Tosca” by then-owner Auaust Belmont. But it was nothing compared to what she would accomplish through her produce.
Sanford was quickly rewarded for purchasing quality horses, as his homebreds began winning top races. The purple and gold-striped silks of Sanford’s Hurricana became well known, especially at nearby Saratoga Racecourse. In those early days, the horses were walked the 28 miles to the track along a route lined with well wishers. On days when Sanford 2-year-olds were unveiled at the Spa, Sanford Carpet Mills’ workers were given the day off to attend the races.
In 1901, the Sanford Stable was built on Nelson Avenue, across from the racetrack. There, in two barns that more recently housed Bill Mott’s runners and Preakness winner Hansel, the Sanford horses occupied the stalls for more than half a century.
Rockton is generally considered the farm’s first good homebred. A foal of 1897, he won the 1901 Saratoga Handicap and later became a successful stallion at the stud.
Molly Brant, a 1900 filly by Clifford, was the best distaffer ever to come from Hurricana pastures. She won many top races, including the Saranac Handicap, the Adirondack Handicap, the Champlain Handicap and two runnings of the Delaware Handicap. But her greatest accomplishment came while setting a world record in the 1904 Merchants and Citizens Handicap, beating the great Broomstick by a head.
La Tosca, meanwhile, was a worthy recipient of August Belmont’s fond nickname. She became the dam of four wonderful racehorses:
Chuctanunda, Caughnawaga, Mohawk II, and La Tosca II. Chuctanunda won the Delaware Handicap and other stakes, while Mohawk II (by Rockton) won the Saratoga Special and the Hopeful. Caughnawaga, La Tosca’s second foal, performed the most difficult task of the time. He defeated the great Beldame twice, including the 1905 Saratoga Cup in which he gave her six pounds.
Stephen Sanford soon took his passion to new heights, holding matinee races on Saturdays around the Fourth of July. From 1903 through 1907 the Sanford Carpet Mills were shut on these summer days, so the townspeople could venture up the hill to Hurricana to watch the Sanford runners compete. The six-furlong track was beautiful, providing townspeople wonderful vantage points for these most social occasions. And the town came out in force, as many as 15,000 attending the final race day in 1907.
During this time, Stephen Sanford ordered five-foot-high stone monuments erected in front of the stallion barn. These thirteen monuments, which appeared to be gravestones, were actually living testaments to the accomplishments of his best horses: Rockton, La Tosca, Chuctanunda, Clifford, Caughnawaga, Mohawk II, Molly Brant, Voter, Post Guard… The horses’ names were boldly inscribed across the monuments’ tops, and their accomplishments on the track or at stud were listed below on adjoining segments.
During these glorious days of matinee races and stone monuments, at the height of Stephen Sanford’s racing involvement, a ban on horse racing in New York was declared. The legislation began in 1907, the ban was in full effect by 1910, and it lasted until 1913. It had a deep effect on Stephen Sanford and his son, John, who had begun taking over the family’s racing interests. The elderly Stephen, by now nearly blind, still journeyed daily up that long Amsterdam hill to visit his farm and the horses he so loved. Yet he was frustrated by his inability to race his horses.
In 1913, at the age of 87, the great businessman Stephen Sanford died, without seeing racing’s return to the Empire State. He was buried in the large family plot in Green Hill Cemetery, overlooking the city. At the time, Sanford Carpet Mills was the town’s largest employer, with 2,500 employees and an annual income of over three million dollars. The town paid its respects with a huge funeral procession, flags at half-staff and five minutes of silence. The reins of both the business and the farm were turned over to his son, John, along with an inheritance estimated at $40 million.
Saratoga Racecourse officials paid their respects by naming a race after Stephen, creating the Sanford Memorial Stakes (later shortened to the Sanford Stakes). One of its first runnings would become perhaps the most famous race in American history, when the great Man o’ War met defeat at the hands of a horse named Upset.
While John had continued to breed horses in Amsterdam in deference to his father, upon Stephen’s death he leased a farm in France in 1913 and shipped many of the Sanford horses there. Within the year, however, France entered the World War and John Sanford transferred his racing stock to England. He sent the stallion Voter to France, where he was to have a lasting impact on the breed through the exploits of his direct descendents Bull Lea, Questionnaire, Citation, Coaltown, War Relic and Battlefield.
John’s filly Humanity, whom he bred in France, became a direct descendent of Case Ace, Pavot, Ace Card, Vertex, One Count, and the immortal Raise a Native. His mare Hemlock produced the wonderful mare Cicuta, who was the dam of Display. Display, in turn, sired Discovery, who gave us one of the great racehorses of all time. Native Dancer.
Back in America in 1915, with racing now in full swing, John Sanford bought a two-year-old named George Smith. This black horse became the most famous American Sanford runner, carrying their silks to victory in the 1916 Kentucky Derby for trainer Hollie Hughes.
Hollie Hughes, who became the Sanfords’ personal trainer in 1914, would remain with the Sanfords for some sixty years. He worked devotedly for John Sanford and the entire Sanford family. They continued to keep horses in England and France in addition to their New York stock, racing with success over the flats and jumps. But the racing world really took notice in 1923 when John’s only son, Stephen, made a bold appearance as the third generation of Sanfords.
It was in 1923 that Stephen Sanford’s hunter, Sergeant Murphy, won England’s Grand National. The Sanfords had bought Sergeant Murphy several years earlier and Stephen, known throughout his life as Laddie, had himself hunted aboard this large chestnut gelding. They made for quite a memorable pair—Sergeant Murphy for his incredible action over the jumps, and Laddie for his dashing smile and ability on a horse.
While Laddie was indeed the third generation in his racing family, he was easily the most accomplished on horseback. He had a way around a horse, and a self-assurance that often accompanied children of wealth. His days at Yale were a thing of legend as he and roommate Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney often got into trouble. But with his smile and quick charm. Laddie always managed to escape any escapade unscathed, with his family name untarnished.
When Laddie’s horse won The Grand National, the racing world noticed the dapper, smiling 24-year-old man accepting the trophy. It was the first American-owned horse ever to win the National, and it was fitting that it be a family with such a strong racing background. This was the height of the Sanford fame, and its crowning moment on the jumping turf.
Hurricana was incorporated in 1923, and renamed Sanford Stud Farms. On a farm 1,000 acres strong, the training track was beautifully maintained. The outer portion of the track consisted of a turf course and at different times, the infield contained either large paddocks or a series of six jumps, for jumper training. For colder days, or young horses’ training, there was an indoor training track of an eighth-mile, as well as seemingly endless paddock rows. And the barns were among the finest in the country, complete with cherry walls, a wood known for its strength, durability and style.
Meanwhile, John’s son Laddie made a name for himself in a different equine venue: polo. He became one of the top-ranked polo players in the country, attaining an eight-goal rating and being a part of five National Open championships with his team, the Hurricanes (named, naturally, after Hurricana Stud). He married movie actress Mary Duncan, and the two cut a powerful figure at countless social events.
1939, however, would change the Sanford family forever. The year began with horror on January 9th, as flames tore through a 28-stall barn that –housed their best horses. Twenty-five horses, trapped within, burned to death. Among those killed were one of the best steeplechase horses in the country, Supply House, and Sun Port, winner of four stakes at Narragansett. While the newspaper accounts did not reveal it, it was widely believed that an employee, let go that morning, had set the blaze.
The tragedy took the heart out of John Sanford. In early August, the elderly Sanford visited Saratoga one last time to watch his favorite jumper race. Golden Meadow, a stunning near-white horse with a high head carriage and a Saratoga record already to his name, won that day for Mr. Sanford. But time had taken its toll. He announced the dispersal of all of his stock, with the exception of his wonderful Golden Meadow. By the end of August, alt of his horses were sold at auction.
A few days after the sale, Mr. Sanford repurchased an equine companion for Golden Meadow named Starpatic. Mr. Sanford, however, was too ill to travel and, within weeks, he died at the Gideon Putnam Hotel.
The Blood-Horse’s obituary told a sad tale in its description of Mr. Sanford: “John Sanford, a Turfman who remained a sportsman long after the encouragement of success was denied him, died at a hotel in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on the night of September 26…” Yet Amsterdam, with the town’s flags flying at half-staff, had perhaps never seen such a funeral procession as that ushering John Sanford to his final resting-place up in Green Hill Cemetery.
With the horses sold, save two, Hollie Hughes and Laddie Sanford met to discuss the farm’s future. Amsterdam’s residents were elated when Laddie decided to continue in the racing business.
The Sanford crew rebuilt its stock, and the farm continued through the 1960s with notable wins. Hollie Hughes was still the family trainer, and manager Ray Pischel took care of daily duties on the farm. There were apple orchards, and a field in which they alternately grew corn or carrots for the horses. There was a blacksmith shop, which forged the ironwork. There were meticulous rows of various-sized barns dotting the property, including stallion rows, a race barn (often called the jumper barn), a large broodmare barn and a stallion barn. Meanwhile, along the road front, the stone monuments stood in quiet tribute to the runners from all those years ago.
Laddie had sustained many polo injuries over the years, and he suffered from the effects of cortizone treatments. By 1954, he was wheelchair-bound. While he continued visiting the races for most of his remaining days, despite his handicap and a stroke in 1965, the great horse that his family had so sought eluded him.
Laddie spent more than twenty years confined to a wheelchair, dying in 1977 at the age of 78. His body was interred in the family plot at Green Hill Cemetery, alongside the past generations of Sanfords. Sixteen years later, in 1993, his wife Mary Duncan Sanford joined him.
Through the years, the Sanford Stud colors had been worn to victory in such races as The Kentucky Derby, The Hopeful, The Alabama, The Delaware Handicap, The Saratoga Cup, The Flamingo Stakes, The Saratoga Breeders’ Cup, The Saratoga Special, the English Grand National and six American Grand Nationals. But as Laddie and Mary had no children, the farm was left to more distant relatives, and the Sanford runners raced no more.
What was left of the farm, some 200 acres, remained in trust for a decade as a New York firm sought a buyer. From 1977 until 1986, the farm went into quiet disrepair, although several horses were still boarded there. Ray Pischel continued to manage the property, having outlived the Sanfords and then Hollie Hughes himself, who passed away in 1981.
In 1986 a Connecticut couple purchased the property, with its beautiful barns and paddocks, for $431,000. Anita and Donald Cariati at first thrilled the people of Amsterdam by painting barns, fixing up fences, and even holding a few fundraisers and polo matches. As Ms. Cariati now relates, racehorses and horseracing provided a tax shelter in the 1980s, but the equine market plunged when the laws changed. Both Thoroughbred and Standardbred owners were effected; and fewer and fewer horses were housed in the Sanford barns.
Soon the social events ceased. Ms. Cariati’s brother, a town councilman, worked toward passing a rezoning of the property for commercial use, raising questions as to Ms. Cariati’s original motives.
When word got out the farm might be rezoned, town board meetings were held as many people fought to preserve the acreage. Others, acknowledging the town’s crumbling economy and high unemployment rates, wanted the zoning change and the new jobs that commercialism would provide. Anita Cariati gained few friends and many enemies along the way, as harsh words were quite widely reported in the local paper.
Petitions were signed to save the farm and various state agencies reviewed proposals for historic preservation. But after a highly antagonistic battle that divided the town, a major part of Stephen Sanford’s beloved Hurricana Stud was sold to Carnegie Development and Management Corporation of Ohio.
Almost immediately, what was once a glorious track with popular matinee races became a shopping plaza named the Sanford Farms Shopping Center. Still standing quietly but proudly behind an Office Max, one of the few large remaining Sanford barns awaits its fate. But most of the buildings are now gone, replaced by an access road. And where once stood a grand, cherry-walled stallion barn, there is now a Wendy’s.
Carnegie Development, aware of Amsterdam’s ties to the Sanford history, proposed a peace offering. It donated the large broodmare barn and an additional small barn, along with an acre of land, to the town for a Sanford museum. The company also agreed to move the equine monuments to that acre, those strong testaments to the Sanfords’ glory days and foundation Thoroughbreds.
In late 1998 however, Anita Cariati had the last word: one night, reportedly after the sale to Carnegie, the monuments were removed from their proud spot on Route 30. When questioned by reporters, she responded that the monuments were a family treasure that she would divide among her relatives. Carnegie considered a lawsuit, claiming the monuments were a part of the sale. But the Ohio-based firm never began proceedings.
It wasn’t necessarily Amsterdam that suffered at the loss of these proud monuments, but all of horse racing. They are some of the only tangible remains of the tradition Stephen Sanford began one hundred and twenty years ago, high atop a hill in Amsterdam, New York.
In Green Hill Cemetery, a large family plot sits virtually unnoticed. There, contained within rusting iron fencing, a circle of stones surrounds a towering monument. The stones’ Inscriptions are fading now, some already illegible.
At the back of the circle lie two, much whiter stones. The words on them are understated, belying what lies beneath. “STEPHEN SANFORD” and “MARY DUNCAN SANFORD” are written simply, with birth and death years noted. There are no words about Stephen’s nickname. Laddie; nor words about his accomplishments-once one of the top five polo players in the land; no words about his being the first American to own an English Grand National winner, or about his fine racing stable and family’s racing heritage. On the bleached stone beside his, Mary’s name is similar in its simplicity. There is nothing of her movie career, or her social standing, or her well-known philanthropic nature.
There are several spots left in the Sanford plot, yet those spots will never be filled. The Sanford line ended with Laddie, as did the Sanford’s blazing run at racing history.
Somewhere out on Amsterdam’s Northampton Road, in an unmarked grave, lie the remains of the Hurricana stallion Rockton. When the grand stallion passed away in 1920 at age 23, his groom Samuel Freightenburg had the animal’s body transported to the dooryard of his home, where he was interred. That is the only racehorse of the Sanfords known to be buried.
There is no apparent move toward a Sanford Museum, as the broodmare barn and an adjacent outbuilding sit in waiting. When contacted, a Town Board representative knows of no immediate plans for such a museum. Calls to Carnegie Development yielded no reply.
The last 130 remaining acres of Sanford Stud, complete with a small row of barns at the back of the property, are still owned by Ms. Cariati. While the land is not officially on the market, she is open to offers for the land. Most of the remaining small barns are still sound, the land is good, and the property is rich in tradition. One small barn even seems to be waiting for equine occupants-its loft is still laden with hay.
Ms. Cariati’s feelings about the equine monuments have softened over the past few years. She does not rule out the possibility that the racing world might again glory in the achievements of those incredible racehorses from a century ago. But the wounds the town inflicted are deep. When questioned if the public might some day again view the monuments, she answers, “Not in Amsterdam.”
Hidden behind one of those remaining barns, slowly disappearing into the growing weeds, the monuments wait, each separated into three segments.
Every morning, daybreak washes over the faces of these monuments. “MOHAWK II”, and “LA TOSCA”, and “MOLLY BRANT” glow in their solitude. One stone, now separated from its base but seeming to belong to Chuctanunda’s, simply states: “His only start at five years, six furlongs in 1.12 at Saratoga, the fastest time ever made in the East”. Every evening, darkness again envelops these hidden tributes, which Stephen Sanford had carved so long ago.
For now, however, the Sanfords live on through other monuments: the blood of Raise a Native, Discovery, Native Dancer, Bull Lea….
It is through them, and through more recent Thoroughbreds descended from Sanford stock—names such as Secretariat, Affirmed, Cigar, Silver Charm and Fusaichi Pegasus-that the family should gain the most peace, and most pride for a job well done.
The Sanfords did not breed any one great horse in their lifetimes, yet they left us an entire legacy of them.
© 2001 Adapted from an article published in NEW YORK THOROUGHBRED, printed by New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Saratoga Springs, NY.