Within three minutes, a priceless collection of trophies at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame vanished into the night.
City police arrived at the building’s side entrance on Ludlow Street less than a minute after being notified by the museum’s private alarm company at 11:36 p.m. Thursday. But by that time, the burglar had already fled with an invaluable swath of racing history, including two trophies won by thoroughbreds sired at the legendary Sanford Stud Farm in Amsterdam.
“In and out,” said Saratoga Springs Police Lt. John Catone. “This is a traditional-style smash and grab.”
And one involving expert precision. The thief was able to break into the Union Avenue building and navigate its darkened corridors without triggering perimeter alarms.
The thief first hit the museum’s steeplechase gallery, nabbing the 1914 Brook Cup Handicap Steeplechase Trophy won by Compliment and the 1923 Grand National Steeplechase Trophy won by Sergeant Murphy. Moments later, he entered the post-Civil War gallery, raiding a case that contained the 1903 Belmont Stakes Trophy won by Africander, the 1903 Brighton Cup Trophy won by Hermis and the 1905 Saratoga Special Trophy won by Mohawk II — a horse bred at the Sanford Stud Farm.
“It was obviously a professional job,” said Brien Bouyea, a spokesman for the museum.
The museum is now trying to determine an exact value of the trophies, three of which were solid gold. But any appraisal of the lost items won’t reflect the unique history of each, said Christopher Dragone, the museum’s director.
“These trophies are irreplaceable,” he said in a statement. “We are saddened by this unfortunate event and hopeful that the investigation leads to the apprehension of the individual or individuals who committed this crime and the return of the trophies.”
Authorities declined to discuss how and where the thief — described as a man wearing dark clothing and carrying a backpack — entered the building. But Catone said he was able to leave through the Ludlow Street door.
On Friday, a 12-inch gash remained on the door where the thief apparently used a device in an attempt to cut through its thick glass. At some point, he apparently abandoned the operation and pushed the door open, triggering the perimeter alarm that notified police.
Another window facing an interior courtyard of the building was boarded up Friday afternoon. The area and the Ludlow Street door were the only parts of the building that appeared visibly impacted by the heist.
The trophies taken were kept with about a half-dozen others in the two cases. The burglary was captured on some of the 16 cameras inside and around the building, but Catone declined to discuss the footage.
Although each of the stolen pieces had significant historical significance, perhaps the most notable was the 248-ounce silver Grand National Steeplechase Trophy won by Stephen “Laddie” Sanford in 1923. Sanford, the son of John Sanford, was the first to ride an American-bred horse to victory in the grueling four-mile race and win prestigious trophy.
The Saratoga Special trophy stolen was also originally won by a Stanford-bred horse. Owned by John Sanford, Mohawk II cruised to victory to win the 76-ounce, 18-carat gold trophy at Saratoga Race Course in August 1903.
The robbery occurred less than nine months after another horse racing museum in the state was struck by thieves. In mid-December, the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen was robbed of 14 pieces valued at more than $300,000, including an 18-karat Memphis Gold Challenge Cup won in 1902 and sterling silver Faberge soup tureen and ladle given to an American by Russian Czar Nicholas II in 1912. That case remains unsolved.
“The FBI has been notified,” Bouyea said. “Obviously there are a lot of similarities.”
Catone said the precious metals in the trophies are probably valuable enough that the thief could net hundreds of thousands of dollars just by melting them down. He’s hoping publicity surrounding the case helps to apprehend the burglar before the historical artifacts vanish forever.
“We want this to go national,” he said. “We want as many people as possible to be looking for these.”