Search continues for Kentucky Derby trophy with local ties

Amsterdam may be known for its knitting and carpet mills, but it is also home to some famous names i
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Amsterdam may be known for its knitting and carpet mills, but it is also home to some famous names in horse racing — and not just the Sanfords.

The Sanfords may be more recognized because the family legacy is visible in the remains of Stephen Sanford’s Hurricana Farm on Route 30, but the Gardners were also racing legends, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1929. While Sanford history is available everywhere, racing enthusiasts aren’t sure what happened to the Gardners or the 1929 Kentucky Derby trophy.

One man is spending his days poring over obituaries and other historic documents in his quest to gather Kentucky Derby trophies dating to its inception in 1922. Jay Ferguson, a curator at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky., has spent the past three years searching for Kentucky Derby trophies.

Ferguson’s fascination with finding these trophies stems from his desire to set up an exhibit showcasing all of the trophies and the stories behind them for the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2010.

“I wanted to do the exhibit on the Derby trophy because we haven’t done a lot of history of the trophy,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview from Louisville. “In meeting with the owners, I like to find out what winning the Derby trophy means to them.”

Ferguson said the best part of his quest has been meeting with the families and hearing their stories.

The museum has 30 trophies promised for the exhibit, but seven remain a mystery, including Herbert Gardner’s.

The earliest known trophy for the race is from 1925 and is in the museum’s collection. Ferguson said the descendants of the owners of the 1922 trophy have no recollection of their family members’ winning it. He has yet to find someone who can help locate the 1923 trophy, he said, and the 1924 trophy was stolen in the 1930s.

“That’s a whole other story,” Ferguson said about the 1924 trophy, “because it was the first one of the current design.”

Ferguson hasn’t found any descendants of the 1937 trophy winner or those of the winner in 1947, which was owned by Elizabeth Arden of cosmetics fame. The 1951 trophy was stolen in the 1980s.

Then, of course, there is the 1929 trophy.

The Gardners were a relatively prominent family in Amsterdam during a time when the city was booming with industry. The family owned a broom factory, which Herbert Gardner and his brother William inherited.

With the stock market crash of 1929, Ferguson said, his research indicates that Herbert Gardner may have died in debt and owed his brother a large amount of money. Ferguson thinks the trophy passed into the hands of William Gardner, a seemingly well-liked man who was active within the city.

William Gardner was one of the trustees of the Sarah Jane Sanford Home for elderly women, which is still in existence. He was Amsterdam mayor from 1930 to 1932.

Gardner’s obituary said he had two grandchildren, Peggy Lee Clark of Amsterdam and William Gardner Derr of Ohio. Ferguson said he hasn’t found any Derrs in Ohio and hasn’t searched Clarks in Amsterdam yet.

Ferguson heard that the trophy might have passed into the hands of an Amsterdam attorney, Charles Tracy, but in speaking with Tracy’s son, he determined that to be inaccurate.

“It’s fascinating and frustrating, too,” Ferguson said. “Usually, researching obituaries gives you who’s next, but since there are no direct descendants in this case, we’re talking to grandnieces and -nephews and it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Ferguson has a few local people trying to track down the trophy for him, including Montgomery County Historian Kelly Farquhar and radio personality and Gazette columnist Bob Cudmore.

Sam Hildebrandt, who is part of the group trying to save Sanford’s Hurricana Farm, said he was contacted about the 1929 trophy. “There isn’t a lot to tell, sadly,” he said.

Hildebrandt is in the process of writing a book about the Sanfords’ horse racing and has come across some information about the Gardners. He said Herbert Gardner’s horses trained behind what is now the Fort Johnson Fire Station on an elevated track.

After World War II, he said there was a moratorium on horse racing in New York, which led to its decline. He said it also became too expensive to train and keep horses, so many families got out of racing.

In the late 1990s, Mike Kane, communications officer for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, was researching a story about Gardner’s horse, Clyde Van Dusen, for The Daily Gazette and also didn’t find any Gardner descendents.

“At that time, the Internet wasn’t what it is, so I had to resort to looking in phone books and checking through archives and asking people,” Kane said.

Kane said he doesn’t believe whoever has the trophy would think it was junk. He said that even in 1929, the Kentucky Derby was one of the most prestigious sporting events in America. Today, a Kentucky Derby trophy would be worth roughly $100,000.

Through Kane’s work at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, he’s seen firsthand how a seemingly lost trophy could be found when a trophy won by Seabiscuit in Mexico was found after it had been stolen 50 years prior.

“I don’t suspect that someone has melted [the trophy] down,” Kane said. “It’s out there, and maybe someday we’ll find it.”

Ferguson said the planned exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum will go on with or without the 1929 trophy, but he’s going to continue searching.

“One can only hope it’s still out there,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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