Amsterdam native Louis Hildebrandt, Sr., began visiting the stables of the Sanford Stud Farm near his Van Dyke Avenue home when he was 13. Within two years, he said, “My mind was made up that horse racing was my career of passion.”
Small in stature (his high school nickname was Shrimp), Hildebrandt was considered a natural jockey by farm workers.
Originally called Hurricana Farm because of the strong winds that blew through the area, the horse farm was started in the late 1800s by carpet tycoon Stephen Sanford. After his death the farm continued to prosper under the ownership of Stephen’s son John.
After graduating from high school in 1936, Hildebrandt signed a five-year contract to be trained as a jockey even though he had not yet been on a horse. He weighed 90 pounds. His mentor was Racing Hall of Fame trainer Hollie Hughes.
Sanford Stud Farm was its own little village as so many exercise boys, grooms and other workers came from out of town. The employees got room and board as part of their wages. Food prepared by two cooks-Mrs. Merry and Mrs. Hamilton-was delicious, according to Hildebrandt.
Tragedy struck in 1939 and Hildebrandt’s progress as a jockey was dealt a setback when fire destroyed a barn at the farm, killing 25 thoroughbred horses and a watchdog. John Sanford died later that year and ownership of the farm passed to John’s son Laddie Sanford and his sisters.
Hildebrandt got a chance to ride at Saratoga in 1940 but his mount, Bea-A-Belle, did not win the race. He married Betty Sheridan of Amsterdam at the end of that year. They had three children.
In World War II, Hildebrandt served as a private at an Army horse training unit in Fort Robinson, Nebraska with Captain Laddie Sanford.
After the war Hildebrandt won important races for the Sanfords including the Monmouth Park Handicap in New Jersey aboard the big horse, Roundview, in July 1947.
Hildebrandt had been injured several times and his favorite mount Roundview was incapacitated by illness.
Hildebrandt said, “I discussed the situation with Betty and decided to call it quits” at the end of the year. Hildebrandt had more than 480 mounts in his eleven year Sanford racing career.
He transitioned from horse racing to horsepower, working as a mechanic and then car salesman for an Amsterdam dealership for 30 years.
His wife Betty died in 1995. Years later, Hildebrandt began keeping company with well-known Amsterdam artist Grace Gilbert, also a widow.
They both were graduates of the class of 1936 at Amsterdam High School. They met when Hildebrandt brought Grace information on an upcoming class reunion.
Grace encouraged Lou to write his 2003 memoir, “Riders Up.” The book was chosen as the 2011 book of the year by Amsterdam Reads.
Although she feared horses, Grace accompanied Hildebrandt to many public appearances including events sponsored by the Friends of Sanford Stud Farm, of which Lou and his son Sam were founding members.
Lou’s son Sam (Louis Hildebrandt, Jr.) gathered pictures and information for a 2009 book about the Sanford horse farm, “Hurricana: Thoroughbred Dynasty, Amsterdam Landmark.”
The Friends have led a campaign to preserve the Broodmare Barn and Jumping Horse Barn on the former Sanford Stud Farm property in the town of Amsterdam. Most of the farm’s acreage has been developed for retail shopping.
Lou Hildebrandt died November 25, 2011 at age 93. His funeral procession made a final stop at the Sanford Stud Farm before proceeding to Hildebrandt’s final resting place at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Johnson. Grace Gilbert died at age 98 in 2017.