Forgotten George Smith’s place among Kentucky Derby greats

There’s no doubt that, a hundred years from now (assuming we haven’t blown up the planet by then), t
The forgotten 1916 Kentucky Derby winner George Smith, ridden by Johnny Loftus.
The forgotten 1916 Kentucky Derby winner George Smith, ridden by Johnny Loftus.

There’s no doubt that, a hundred years from now (assuming we haven’t blown up the planet by then), there will be more than enough public accounting of American Pharoah’s Kentucky Derby and subsequent Triple Crown.

The same can’t be said for a black horse who, for a few years, resided on Route 30 in Amsterdam a hundred years ago, and made the 28-mile walk to Saratoga Race Course in the summer with the rest of the Sanford Farm’s string of racehorses.

If you’ve visited the Saratoga backstretch, you’ve trod the same ground as Derby winners, including Pharoah himself. But if you’ve driven or walked up Galway Road through Saratoga County west of Saratoga Springs, Derby ghosts whisper to you there, too, whether you realize it or not.

The year 2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Kentucky Derby won by George Smith, a colt owned by the fabled Sanford family, a pillar of thoroughbred racing and breeding for decades in Amsterdam.

Plenty about the Run for the Roses has changed since 1916, when a mere nine horses went to post, with names like Star Hawk, Dodge, Thunderer and Dominant.

At 6:34 p.m. on Saturday, they’ll cram 14 into the Churchills Downs main starting gate and six more in the auxiliary gate. Well before then, well over 100,000 people will likewise be crammed into the old part of the building and the newer behemoth sections of the clubhouse and grandstand that dwarf the twin spires on either side.

The biggest question is whether the undefeated Nyquist can duplicate Pharoah’s feats, but no matter what happens after the gate opens, the charge in the air and thrill in the hearts of the public will reach a unique crescendo because it’s, well, the Derby.

We got here because of horses like George Smith, just one of dozens of horses who contributed more to the mystique of the race than the record books and bloodlines can tell.

A hundred years ago, George Smith gave Sanford Farm its crowning achievement, according to my friend Sam Hildebrandt.

As the son of the late Louis Hildebrandt, the long-time contract jockey for the Sanford family, Sam grew up on that farm, has spearheaded the preservation of what little remains of it, and is a terrific historical resource and storyteller.

Of course, he wasn’t around when George Smith did his thing, but stories and legend get passed down, so Sam can speak to the George Smith legacy as well as anyone.

As Sam says, the Sanford philosophy was “buy to race, breed to sell,” and that was embodied in George Smith, whom the Sanfords bought off the track as a promising 2-year-old.

By then, he had won some stakes races in Canada but had lost at Saratoga in the race inaugurated in 1913 and named for the Sanfords, which is still run on the first weekend of the meet today.

Trainer Hollie Hughes, then a future Hall of Famer, convinced owner John Sanford that this black colt was a worthy purchase, a potential Derby horse, no less, so Mr. Sanford bought the horse for $22,500. A win in the Annapolis Stakes convinced them that George Smith could be a Derby winner.

“John was down in Kentucky, and Hollie Hughes said, ‘Listen, this is such a smart-looking animal,’ and John listened to Hollie Hughes, who had a sixth-grade education but was a Rhodes scholar when it came to horses,” Sam Hildebrandt said.

“They picked him up for a song. He was a fine-looking horse, and Hollie Hughes was very impressed with the horse the first time he saw him. Hollie had an eye. That probably was the biggest feather in their cap until probably after World War II, is my guess. He just had a knack for picking up horses that others were not successful with, and running them.”

“We raced him once that fall, down at Laurel [in Maryland] in October, and when he won, we began to think, hell, this horse might win the Derby. The Derby was coming along then . . .” Hollie Hughes told Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford in an April 29, 1974, article, “The Sun Shines Bright,” that I highly recommend you dig up online, if you’re still not quite in Derby Fever mode.

On May 13, 1916, George Smith, ridden by another Hall of Famer, Johnny Loftus, held off Star Hawk by a neck at odds of 4-1, returning a winner’s share to the Sanford connections of $9,750, of which Hughes was entitled to 10 percent as the trainer of record. The winner’s share on Saturday, if 20 horses start, will be $1,631,600.

The easy assumption is that George Smith was named for “Pittsburgh Phil,” the legendary gambler George E. Smith of that era who pioneered a variety of handicapping strategies. In the Deford article, Hughes disputes this, claiming that the horse was named after a friend of a previous owner.

George Smith the horse was not a one-shot wonder, although he did lose the prestigious Saratoga Handicap as a 4-year-old to 1914 Travers winner Roamer.

In a rare meeting of three Kentucky Derby winners, the 5-year-old George Smith finished his 31-race career by winning the 1918 Bowie Handicap at Pimlico despite carrying several pounds more than his rivals. The vanquished included 1917 Derby winner Omar Khayyam and 1918 winner Exterminator. (For more highly recommended reading, grab a copy of Eliza McGraw’s excellent new book “Here Comes Exterminator!”)

Besides Sam’s stories and a page in the Kentucky Derby media guide, there’s not much left of the hazy account of George Smith.

There’s been confusion over whether Hollie Hughes, who habitually scouted racing prospects in Europe, even attended George Smith’s Derby, while Preston Burch handled saddling duty. In his interview with Deford, Hughes gives a vivid recollection of the race, as viewed from the box seats.

George Smith bombed as a stallion in Amsterdam, and by 1927 he had been donated to the U.S. Army Remount Service to sire horses for the cavalry.

Sam Hildebrandt said rumor has it that George Smith’s foal papers were in the old Sanford compound, those distinctive white barns and cottages with the diamond-shaped windows on the gable end you can see across Nelson Avenue from the track.

But nobody knows what happened to them.

There’s no trophy . . . Churchill Downs hadn’t begun awarding one back then.

A hundred years later, there’s scant evidence that this horse from Amsterdam won the Run for the Roses. The Derby is so much more than mint juleps, gaudy hats and packed infield tents, though.

It’s American Pharoah, Mine That Bird, Funny Cide, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, War Admiral . . . and George Smith.

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