A Seat in the Bleachers: FSSF won't let farm's legacy die
All was quiet except for the sound of a power drill buzzing from somewhere inside the big white building on Route 30 in Amsterdam last Friday morning.
It’s not unusual to find Louis “Sam” Hildebrandt Jr. rustling around the enormous broodmare barn of the Sanford Stud Farm.
It would be highly unusual to find Sally Lieberman (nee Pischel) doing so.
Over 60 years ago, they were young kids growing up on this farm, Sam the son of the Sanford contract jockey, Louis Sr., and Sally the daughter of the farm manager, Ray Pischel.
They understood that as long as you stayed out of the way and let everybody do their work, you could pretty much have the run of the place.
And what a place.
It produced the 1916 Kentucky Derby winner — George Smith — and many other horses who won most of the biggest stakes races at Saratoga and beyond.
You could get the comprehensive thoroughbred education here, from the complexities of breeding and training, to the simplest things, like the proper way to hold a piece of apple to feed a horse. Sam’s gnarled thumb is a testament to that.
“It looked like paradise,” Lieberman said. “It was huge. There were horses everywhere. At nighttime, they would turn the 2-year-olds out in very, very large paddocks. They would just be out there doing their horsey thing. That was us just sitting on the fence, watching.”
As the cavalcade of events celebrating the 150 years of racing in Saratoga Springs continues to march proudly forward, anyone who cares about racing history should also keep an eye on the activity in and around the old Sanford property nestled amont the strip malls and big boxes on the hilltop in Amsterdam.
It’s a measure of the deep affection many like Sam and Sally have for the remnants of the farm that the Friends of Sanford Stud Farm charitable organization continues with this march of its own, gathering money for the seemingly endless renovation projects in front of them.
It’s also a measure of the heartbreak caused by the downfall of the farm and subsequent parceling of the property for commercial use that Sally, who lives with her husband, Leon, on Round View Farm in Porter Corners near Saratoga, has refused to set foot on the place since her father died in 1992.
“My husband has been back, but I cannot physically go there, because in my eyes . . . I can’t stand to see a Walmart in the middle of the racetrack,” she said while attending the Sanford luncheon on opening weekend of the Saratoga meet.
“It was such a devastating loss, what the people who bought the farm did to it. They were terrible to my parents and did awful, awful things to that farm.
“I was on the original [FSSF] board, so I’m behind them 100 percent. But as far as being able to physically go back there, I can’t go back to the Horse Tales and Cocktails. As much as I would like to see the inside of the broodmare barn again, I would have to be taken in blindfolded, and they’d have to block out all of the windows. I’ve got it fixed in my mind of what it was like, and that’s going to stay, hopefully, until the day I die.”
Sam is convinced that Ray Pischel, who left a carpet mill at 17 and started working at the farm for $4 a day, “died of a broken heart.”
At one time, the farm, which rug-making mogul John Sanford built into one of the best breeding and racing operations in North America, had a three-quarter mile training track, an indoor training track and dozens of buildings, including foaling barns, a gigantic yearling barn and housing for 30 to 40 workers.
The training track had a judge’s stand similar to the beautiful structure that recently was erected at the Oklahoma training track as an homage to Saratoga’s history.
Refuse at Sanford was carted away by a team of four horses pulling a wagon in dry weather and a sleigh when there was snow on the ground.
“It was a bustling place,” Sam said. “Everybody had a job to do, whether it was cutting carrots or carrying feed or watering the
horses. It was just like a miniature Saratoga, except it was on a daily basis. There was a fully equipped kitchen to cook for 30, 40 men three meals every day, seven days a week.”
Not many of those buildings still stand, but FSSF has been allowed by the Town of Amsterdam to preserve the broodmare barn and steeplechase barn.
Their effort was substantially bolstered in June when the Sanford farm was added to the National Register of Historic Places under its original name, Hurricana Stock Farm.
It’s a long way from where the FSSF began.
“Once we got into it, I got really excited, until the first day that the contractors got here,” Sam said. “They pulled the roof off the east entrance, and it was 80 years of rot. The only thing holding the roof up was that sliding door. The rafters and the wood underneath were the consistency of shredded wheat. The engineer was here and shook his head.
“Literally, I remember I was on Middle Grove Road on my way toward Greenfield Center and I was having trouble seeing. And I realized that I had tears in my eyes. I was so upset about it. I knew it was going to cost so much money, and the project was going to come to a screeching halt.
“And it didn’t.”
FSSF is almost finished with projects that will give structural integrity to the massive broodmare barn, after which they can start working on more infrastructural and cosmetic projects.
Sam, who wrote the book “Hurricana: Thoroughbred Dynasty, Amsterdam Landmark”, interviewed a woman who was at the hospital across Route 30 and witnessed the collapse of the indoor training track.
She described it like a ring of dominoes falling down.
Asked about the lingering sadness, Sally said, “How hard do you want to see me cry?
“It was my home. It’ll always be my home.”
The stories still cascade from Sam like fallen dominoes in reverse, though.
You could say the same about the string of projects and developments that continue to buttress the Sanford farm and its legacy.
There was something promising about the sound of that buzzing power drill, then Sam turned it off, stepped back and looked at the new plaque:
“Hurricana Stock Farm c. 1880. Has Been Listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of Interior.”