A year ago, I first made the acquaintance of Hollie Hughes, a man who devoted himself to and made a life in horse racing, who is as closely linked to one of racing’s first families as anyone could be—and of whom most racing fans have never heard.
A year ago, I wrote of Hughes and of Sanford Farm, the place where he began his racing career, and of the disgraceful disintegration of the farm and the valiant efforts of local people to restore the few bits of it that remain.
One can’t read—or write—about the Sanford family without mentioning Hollie Hughes, and vice versa. As Red Smith noted in a 1978 column in the New York Times, quoting Phil Bieber:
“In 1903…a skinny, pleasant lad of 15 applied for a job at the Sanford Stud Farm in Amsterdam, N.Y. His name was Hollie Hughes and he was taken on as night watchman.”
Twenty-eight years earlier the same newspaper had reported on a win by a Sanford horse at Gulfstream, Yankee Hill in the Inaugural Handicap, the author James Roach noting that Hughes had been training for the Sanford for “half a century.”
On the occasion of the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby, Frank Deford, perhaps the most underrated racing fan in the country, wrote a long article in Sports Illustrated. Take the time to read all eleven on-line pages of it, 20% of which is devoted to his conversation with Hollie Hughes. The facts in the article differ slightly from those Red Smith recalls through Bieber, but the spirit is the same.
Hughes’ place in Derby history was secured in 1916, when his horse George Smith (owned by the Sanfords) won the Run for the Roses. The NYRA webpage for the Hollie Hughes tell us that at the time of George Smith’s Derby, Hughes was serving in World War I. The horse did run in his name, though; check out George Smith’s official Kentucky Derby page, with photo, chart, and complete order of finish.
In 1974, Hollie Hughes was 86 years old, and Deford visited him at his Kentucky stables. Hollie Hughes is not the oldest Derby survivor. An ancient chap in Louisville even claims, vaguely, dubiously, to have seen the first one in 1875. But in a special way Hollie Hughes’ antiquity counts most because he is still doing precisely what he was doing on May 13, 1916: he is training horses for Sanford Stud.
“I lived about a mile from the Sanford Farm, in Amsterdam, N. Y. The farm’s been going about a hundred years now…[it] was 28 miles from Saratoga, and when we first started we used to walk the horses the 28 miles over there to run them.”
A 2008 article in the Schenectady Gazette details this walk, which has become a part of racing lore. Bob Cudmore quotes Hughes from Alex M. Robb’s book The Sanfords of Amsterdam:
“First, we’d go up to Hagaman, a couple of miles away, and then we’d head for Top Notch, or West Galway, as it’s called,” Hughes said. “That would be about five miles. Then we’d go three miles straight east to Galway village. Then we’d go to West Milton, about seven miles farther east, and there we’d stop at the old Dutch Inn and feed the horses and men. My, those breakfasts tasted good! By that time it would be close to daylight. On the way over, half the horses would be under saddle with boys up. After breakfast the saddles were put on the others which had been led by the men up to this point, and we’d walk the remaining ten miles to Saratoga, coming in by Geyser Spring.”
In the Deford article, Hughes relates the story of how George Smith came to run in the Derby; he’d raced in Canada at two, and by the fall of that year, his connections were having Derby dreams. Check out this road to Louisville:
“We shipped early in April from Charleston and raced George Smith late in April at the old Lexington track. This was the only race he had as a 3-year-old before the Derby. It was a mile and a sixteenth. A nice mare named Bayberry Candle beat him, but he was giving her 21 pounds on the scale.” (9)
This account certainly doesn’t make it sound as though Hughes was thousands of miles away in World War I, but I can’t find any source that offers conclusive information about Hughes’ whereabouts in May of 1916.
Hughes died in 1981. He won a lot of races in his life time, including six American Grand Nationals (he earned perhaps more acclaim as a steeplechase trainer than as a flat trainer), but he never made it back to the Kentucky Derby.
“A few years later I had a horse named Snob, and I told Mr. Sanford we ought to put him in the Derby because he might win. But Mr. Sanford could be a peculiar man. He said, ‘I have won one Derby. I have no desire to win any other.’ So I never had any reason to go back.” (Deford 10)
Cudmore, Bob. “Walking the Horses.” Daily Gazette. 24 July 2008. 17 Feb 2009.
Deford, Frank. “The Sun Shines Bright.” Sports Illustrated. 29 April 1974. 17 Feb 2009. 08
Roach, James. “Yankee Hill Clips Gulfstream Mark.” New York Times. 5 March 1950. 17 Feb 2009. F9
Smith, Red. “Some Reflections on a Horseman.” New York Times. 6 Feb 1978. 17 Feb 2009.