SARATOGA SPRINGS Today’s rabbithole is brought to you by the fine folks who once operated one of the most influential breeding and racing operations in North America.
And they did so in Amsterdam, up the hill on Route 30.
For those who don’t know the history, the Sanford Stakes on Saturday has one of those ho-hum names that a patron at Saratoga Race Course might pause for a nanosecond to consider, then shrug and get back to figuring out how to crack the pick 6.
But the track will be running the Sanford for the 100th time on Saturday, and a look at the history of the race shows how deeply it is intertwined with its host track and racing in general.
I stuck my nose in the history books to tug at some of the Sanford threads, and, as expected, found a rich tradition that befits one of the oldest stakes races at Saratoga as it celebrates its centennial running (though not its 100th birthday).
Rightfully, the Sanford is best known as the only race Man o’ War lost in his entire career.
That’s 21 races, none of which started with Man o’ War at odds higher than 4-5.
The race, then known as the Sanford Memorial and named after the patriarch of Hurricana Farm in Amsterdam, carpet mogul Stephen Sanford, remains the only blot on Man o’ War’s career. Of course, he was vanquished by a horse named Upset.
But there’s plenty of other good Sanford Stakes stuff to consider as Saratoga opens for the 146th time today.
We can go back to 1914, the second running of the Sanford, and find Regret, who began her career in a way that would be unimaginable today.
She swept the three stakes races for 2-year-olds — the Saratoga Special, Sanford and Hopeful, then — then — won the Kentucky Derby.
That’s a decent 4-for-4, and made her the first of just three filly Derby winners and first of only four horses who have swept those three juvenile stakes at Saratoga (the corresponding trio of stakes for fillies has been in place since 1953).
Besides Man o’ War and Regret, the Sanford has been graced by three other Hall of Famers — Tom Fool, Secretariat and Affirmed — and Secretariat and Affirmed, of course, also were Triple Crown winners.
Affirmed’s sire, Exclusive Native, won the Sanford in 1967.
Besides Regret, the colts who have swept the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful were Campfire (1916), Dehere (1993) and City Zip (2000).
Another notable Sanford winner was Afleet Alex, who never had a chance to sweep the three Saratoga juvenile stakes for colts because the Saratoga Special was dropped from the schedule in 2004.
He went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2005 after finishing third behind 50-1 Giacomo and 71-1 Closing Argument in the Kentucky Derby.
The Sanford was held at Belmont Park from 1943-45 when Saratoga was closed for gas rationing during World War II.
The race wasn’t held in 2005 as NYRA tweaked the 2-year-old stakes program to include two legs instead of three, as they did by eliminating the Saratoga Special in 2004.
The only other year the Sanford hasn’t been held was 1961, and if anyone out there knows why, feel free to contact me or my friend Sam Hildebrandt. Because we don't know and can't find the story behind that.
Sam’s father, Louie, was the contract jockey for the Sanfords from 1936-47, and Sam has been a driving force behind the Friends of Sanford Stud Farm (FSSF), who have been preserving what’s left of the Sanford facility on Route 30.
According to Sam, his father never rode a horse in the Sanford, nor did the stable ever start one in it.
He has a few memories of his own from the race, like when he was a kid around 1950 or so, and the Sanford contingent watched it from the infield.
The finish was so close that the farm’s caretaker, Moon Pikor, couldn’t contain himself, literally.
“Moon was so cranked up that his upper and lower teeth fell out,” Hildebrandt said. “I was scared to death, to see a man’s teeth fall out of his head. Then he stepped on them and cut his foot.”
OK, so maybe that doesn’t quite fit in the same category of folklore as Man o’ War’s loss to Upset or the first stakes start in the career of Secretariat.
But it’s all part of the Sanford legacy and, by extension, the Saratoga Race Course legacy.
There are nine colts entered in the 100th Sanford on Saturday, and none of them looks like another Man o’ War or Secretariat.
But they could be something.