Hollie Hughes was born in 1888 on a farm a few miles from carpet manufacturer Stephen Sanford’s Hurricana Farm, a breeding ground for thoroughbred horses on a windswept hill in the town of Amsterdam.
Hughes’s parents were Edgar and Almeda Miller Hughes.
His mother took him to Hurricana, later known as Sanford Stud Farm, when he was 6. Hughes said he fell in love with thoroughbreds then.
At 15 he was hired as an apprentice to trainer Will Hayward. In those days, horses were walked each summer from the Amsterdam farm to Saratoga Racetrack.
Hughes rose through the ranks of groom, foreman and assistant trainer. He became head trainer at age 26 in 1914 when Hayward died.
Stephen Sanford had died in 1913, leaving an estate of $38 million to his son John. Hughes, married to Anne Mitchell of Amsterdam, began working for John Sanford and John’sson Stephen, known as Laddie.
Hughes trained George Smith, the horse that won the 1916 Kentucky Derby bearing the Sanford colors, purple and gold, still the school colors of Amsterdam High. Hughes was not in Kentucky that day as he was on his way to Europe serving in the U.S. Army.
Years later Hughes found a horse named Snob that he thought would also have a chance in the Derby.
John Sanford said he was not interested. “I won one Kentucky Derby. I have no desire to win another.”
Hughes trained jumping horses for the Sanfords that won many steeplechase races, including the American Grand National. Hughes arranged Laddie Sanford’s purchase of Sergeant Murphy. The horse won the English Grand National in 1923, a first for an American owner.
Hughes once told a reporter that 90 percent of horses “are no good for racing.” He said horses will “flatter you” at first but then “the novelty wears off running.”
Hughes said, “There’s so few who will try. They’re like people. That’s what makes a race horse—trying.”
A tragic event in Amsterdam racing history was the Jan. 9, 1939 fire at Sanford Stud Farm on Route 30 that killed 25 horses. The fire started when a stable hand disposed of a cigarette. Hughes estimated the damage at $200,000.
Hughes and Sanford’s valet William Burley were at John Sanford’s bedside at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs eight months later when Sanford died. Hughes continued as Sanford’s head trainer for Laddie, a famous horseman, and his two sisters.
Among the jockeys Hughes worked with was Amsterdam native Louis Hildebrandt, who wrote a book about his career called “Riders Up.” Hildebrandt rode the Hughes-trained horse Roundview to victory in the Monmouth Handicap in New Jersey and the Flamingo in Florida. Roundview won the Whitney in 1949, after Hildebrandt had retired from horse racing. Hughes won more than 20 stakes races overall.
According to Hildebrandt, Hughes was an astute real estate investor, buying property around Lynnwood, Long Island, where he lived during World War II, selling the property after the war.
Hughes was a fixture during the summer racing meet at Saratoga into the 1970s, always staying in the same cottage. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1973.
He retired in 1975 at age 87. The Sanfords sold their Amsterdam horse farm in 1976.
Hughes died at age 92 in 1981. At the time, he was living in East Rockaway on Long Island. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Johnson.
The Friends of Sanford Stud Farm have conducted fundraising efforts to preserve two barns remaining at the former horse farm and hold public events there.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]