Saratoga County

A Seat in the Bleachers: Sanford has sense of history

There’s a big, dignified wooden building on Route 30 just north of downtown Amsterdam. More specific

It’s easy to believe that the world isn’t the same as it used to be.

Everything looks the same as everything else, mind you.

Wal-Mart looks like Home Depot looks like Best Buy.

They’re building churches that look like Wal-Mart. Superstores and megachurches, and everybody’s selling something.

But the world itself is different nowadays.

Isn’t it?

There’s a big, dignified wooden building on Route 30 just north of downtown Amsterdam, nestled among an Advance Auto Parts, a dialysis center, H&R Block, Price Chopper, Wendy’s. A hulking Wal-Mart lurks back there.

This sparkling-white building looks like a church.

Oh. It’s a barn.

More specifically, it’s where the Sanford Stud Farm, originally named Hurricana, used to house its broodmares, and it’s one of the last relics of a sprawling racehorse operation that covered over 1,000 acres and now is reduced by time and a different world to just one measly acre, surrounded by parking lots and some unused land.

The Friends of Sanford Stud Farm contacted me a few weeks ago to sneak in a plug for two fundraisers they’ll hold in conjunction with the 144th Saratoga Race Course meet, which begins on Friday.

Their exceedingly genial and voluble president, Louis “Sam” Hildebrandt Jr., invited me out to see what they’re doing with the place as they continue to restore not only some buildings, but a time and place long lost, when this was one of the principal breeding and racing operations in North America.

As such, the farm supplied a seemingly endless stock of horses to tracks like Saratoga, which is difficult to believe, considering the relentless swirl of modern commercialism that has just about engulfed what’s left.

What is left is a beautiful building that the Friends are quietly and dil­igently committed to preserving.

What comes with that deal is preservation of a significant segment of racing’s history, one with strong ties to Saratoga.

How many Capital Region residents are aware that the 1916 Kentucky Derby winner, George Smith, resided right there, where that shopping mall sits?

How many realize that the purple-and-gold colors of the Amsterdam High sports teams were adopted from the Sanford silks?

Two Hall of Fame trainers, Hollie Hughes and Preston Burch, worked for the Sanfords.

Words like “tradition” and “history” can be tossed around loosely, but those components are unden­iable when you walk inside the Sanford broodmare barn.

In fact, the Friends and the Town of Amsterdam are working on gaining designation with the state to have the Sanford Farm building and land listed on the registry of historical sites.

My tour guide was Hildebrandt, whose father, Louis Sr., was the Sanford contract jockey in the 1940s.

Besides the majestic three-story broodmare barn, half of a barn that housed steeplechase horses remains, lopped off by an access road that separates the property from a Walgreen’s.

When you walk inside, your first reaction is to look up. And up.

It’s called clearstory architecture, modeled after the style of factories and cathedrals in Europe at the time, and one key element is a bank of windows at the top that allow for what Hildebrandt describes as “passive solar energy,” and I prefer to call common sense and attention to detail. An abundance of light filters down to the floor, where roomy stalls on either side stand empty.

At the end of the barn is a training ring where Hughes used to sit in a wicker chair with a switch and teach jumpers the baby step of 18-inch barriers.

The three generations of Sanfords — Stephen, the “General”; son John; and grandson Stephen, “Laddie” — were some of the richest men in the country, captains of the carpet industry that gave the Rug City its identity.

In 1870, the dyspeptic General was told by his doctor, “You don’t want my medicine, go buy a farm,” so he did, and he could afford to spare no expense.

The walls of the steeplechaser stalls, for instance, are made of stouter cherrywood, to withstand the stiffer kicks of the jumpers; you can see hoofprints, chest high.

At its peak, Hurricana had 40 buildings, including such extrav­agances as an indoor training ring, a three-quarter-mile training track and a 400-foot yearling barn with an enclosed promenade that was long enough for light workouts.

All gone, except for the broodmare barn, the jumper barn, the farm barn, where non-thoroughbred livestock were kept, and several foaling barns. The weathered farm barn and foaling barns are on property the town doesn’t own.

The not-for-profit Friends have been around since 2006, and the project is a bear.

“We’ve spent $261,000; we’ll spend another 261,” Sam Hild­ebrandt said. “I’ll never see it.”

Out of curiosity, I drove to Sar­atoga using the same route that the Sanford horses used to walk — all 27 miles — to the two Sanford barns that are still used today by NYRA on Nelson Avenue. Considering the distance and the hills, I couldn’t believe that this was the routine for top-level thoroughbreds.

They’d leave at 1 a.m. a day or so before the meet, stop to rest and water at the Topnotch Hotel in West Galway, the old Galway Hotel and West Milton.

Once you get away from the shopping plaza, West Galway, Galway and Geyser roads give you some sense of what it must have been like.

There’s still plenty of farmland on these country backroads, and the smell of pine comes through the window. A deer loped across Galway Road in front of me.

Then as you get into Saratoga on the other side, you’re surrounded by a long row of new houses, playgrounds and businesses that weren’t there 100 years ago.

In this way, I was able to connect some dots, and the world of Sanford’s glory days took shape again, beginning at an old barn in Amsterdam and ending at an old track that is revivified each summer in Saratoga.

The steep angles at the gable end of the two barns and Hughes’ cottage are identical to those of the old foaling barns that stand crooked in the weeds back in Amsterdam.

After my tour last week, I stood outside the Sanford barn and admired its simple grandeur.

Sam Hildebrandt gave me a sidelong glance and a grin.

“It’s got potential.”

Categories: -Sports-

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