The race named for Hollie Hughes hasn’t been around all that long – only since 1979 – but it honors a man whose life in racing began 98 years ago, a man who worked for a stable – Stephen Sanford’s Hurricana Farm — that was racing at Saratoga as far back as 1880. The Sanfords’ eponymous race at Saratoga was first run in 1913.
The Hollie Hughes will be run at Aqueduct on Monday, and according to the man whose father worked for Hughes and the Sanfords for 11 years, Hughes was “the glue of the whole [Sanford] organization.” Louis Hildebrandt, Jr., known as Sam, is a retired schoolteacher whose second career is as archivist, historian, and preservationist of the Hurricana/Sanford legacy. His father, Louis, was a stable rider for the farm; he died last November at age 93.
According to Sam, his father grew up on the south side of Van Dyke Avenue in Amsterdam, New York, across from the fields and paddocks of Hurricana Farm. On his way to and from Amsterdam High School, he’d stop to watch the people working horses. Nicknamed “Shrimp,” the 10th grader weighed about 87 pounds, and the shrewd horse guys on the other side of the fence, told him, “You ought to quit school and come ride.”
According to his memoir, Riders Up, Louie graduated from high school on a Friday, went on a celebratory fishing trip to Lake Pleasant, and came back to sign a contract with the farm for $30 a month. It was 1936, and he was 17 years old. Hollie Hughes was his boss.
Characterizing Hughes as a “taskmaster,” Sam said that his father didn’t ride a race for Hughes until 1941. “Hughes was old school,” said Sam. “He believed that you learn a horse from ground up, front to back, and that you need to learn the business before you can ride.”
A 1939 fire at the farm destroyed the race barn and killed more than two dozen horses, leaving the business in tatters and meriting a report in the New York Times. Without horses to train, Hughes sent Louie to work for trainer Andrew Schuttinger in Red Bank, New Jersey, at Oliver Iselin’s Brookdale farm (at one time owned by David Dunham Withers), where he could continue his apprenticeship. Louie stayed there for eight months, during which he sent a “relentless barrage” of letters back home, according to his son, asking to come home to Amsterdam.
My idea in sending you to Mr. Schuttinger” [went one reply from Hughes], “was to afford you a better opportunity to get in more work on horses in training (by that I mean working horses and schooling from the barrier etc.) than I would be able to provide for you for the next few months.
I would not wish to hold you back,and (sic) shall by no means do so, from advancing yourself towards your earnest goal. As you can realize, since our fire disaster our plans so far as racing is concerned this year are rather uncertain…
Louie did go back to Amsterdam, and when the United States entered World War II, he—along with Sanford horses–followed Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, grandson of the farm’s founder, on his active duty postings in Front Royal, Virginia and Fort Robinson in Crawford, Nebraska, at Sanford’s request.
In a handwritten letter to Louie, Hughes discussed the move.
The Capt. [Laddie] informed me the other night over the telephone that you would be transferred to his new post at “Fort Robinson,” Nebraska and that you would accompany the shippment (sic) of his horses and household good to that post same time in the near future…It was because of your transfer that inspired him to bring Vintage Port out there to have a little fun on the side. It seems that there are a few little race tracks operating in that vicinity where Vintage Port could run and you to ride and where the boys could go for a little fun and recreation.
Vintage Port got his name because he was blind in his right eye, and he was Louie’s favorite; Riders Up details his many rides on him, and in 1941, they won the Gun Hill Handicap at Empire City.
Sam Hildebrandt characterized Fort Robinson as “the country club of the army,” noting that Laddie Sanford, who bred polo ponies for his own use, set up a polo field in the middle of the training track there. Fort Robinson was apparently a destination for horsemen in the army; Sam indicated that jockey Basil James and trainer Joe Nash were stationed there as well. Living on the base with his father, he said that he sat on the knee of Ira Hanford, the jockey who won the 1936 Kentucky Derby aboard Bold Venture. Ira’s brother Carl would go on to fame as the trainer of Kelso.
Louie’s career with Hurricana lasted only 11 years; perhaps his most notable mount was Round View, on whom he won the Flamingo Stakes, the Boniface Handicap, the Royal Palm Handicap, and the Monmouth Handicap. When Round View was injured in 1947, Louie retired, himself having suffered enough injuries to make him wary of a return to the track. Round View would come back to the races, winning the Whitney in 1949. Hildebrandt would not.
Hildebrandt lived in Amsterdam for the next 60 years, selling cars from 1955 to 1984. He was, according to his son, tremendously successful, but, said Sam, “He’d always say, ‘The best chapters of my life were right up on that farm.’”
Louie’s devotion to the farm continued to the day he died. Sam recalled his father going into the shops in Amsterdam and approaching people “like a panhandler” to get them to join the Friends of Sanford Stud Farm, an organization devoted to saving what little is left of historic Hurricana. “It was embarrassing,” said Sam, “but it worked.”
His father, he said, always referred to the farm as his alma mater. He recalled Louie saying, “Most of my friends who could afford it went to college. I came to the farm. That was my springboard to success.”
I am indebted to Sam Hildebrandt for his time and contributions to this post. He sent me a copy of his father’s book, Riders Up, along with images of the letters that his father received from Hollie Hughes and photos of his family and the farm. He was also unstintingly generous with his time in telling me the stories without which I couldn’t have written this.
All the photos and images belong to him and are used here with his permission; please don’t reproduce or re-post them without it.
Click here for more photos and for images of the letters that Hollie Hughes sent to Louie Hildebrandt.
For more on the legacy and history of Hurricana and Sanford Stud Farm, check out:
Previous Brooklyn Backstretch posts
Barbara Livingston’s incredible article from New York Thoroughbred
The Friends of Sanford Stud Farms site and Facebook page
Sources quoted and consulted
Field, Bryan. “Handicap Taken by Vintage Port.” New York Times, 23 October 1941.
Hildebrandt, Louis. Riders Up, published 2003.
Hildebrandt, Louis F., Jr. Hurricana: Thoroughbred Dynasty, Amsterdam Landmark, published 2009
“Stable Fire Kills 25 Sanford Racers.” New York Times, 10 January 1939.
2 thoughts on “Hollie Hughes, Louie Hildebrandt, and Sanford Stud Farm”
Well done, Teresa. Once again you capture the colorful personality of horseracing’s history in a writing style that wholly absorbs the reader. Reading Hollie’s handwritten letters, added to your text, becomes a unique visual window into his early thinking and reveals that trainer’s backstretch reputation as the complete horseman.
I am humbled that Sam shared his treasures with me, and there is so much more in Amsterdam to be discovered, letters galore! I hope to see them & to meet Sam this summer. This post was a labor of love.