The racetracks at Saratoga are miles to the east, but their influence on Montgomery and Fulton counties cannot be doubted. Champion harness and flat racers have hailed from both counties for more than 100 years.
In the 1870s, Amsterdam carpet manufacturer Stephen Sanford was advised by his doctor to buy a small farm to go to on the weekends. Originally named "Hurricana" for the winds that blew over it, the Sanford Stud Farm became the largest thoroughbred racing facility of its kind in the northeast, according to Louis "Sam" Hildebrandt, Jr., who is the former president of Friends of Sanford Stud Farm.
"By the turn of the century it was a very big contender," he said, "a force to be dealt with in the thoroughbred racing game."
Arthur “Skip” Spring gives his
4-year-old standardbred horse
Dancinwiththestarz a kiss in a
stable on his property on Heagle Road in Johnstown on Thursday. The champion horse suffered a career ending injury in 2010. It now lives at the Arthur and Wendy Springs’ farm.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Paul Dudka holds I Love Too Much in the winner’s circle at Saratoga Raceway on Wednesday night. Dudka trains standardbreds with his father, Gary, at Diamond Creek Stables in Amsterdam.
The Leader-Herald/Barbara Cook
One of the more unique aspects of the farm was the horses were walked the 27 miles to Saratoga Springs for the annual racing meet.
"It was an entourage of upwards of 30 horses and a like number of jockeys, valets and exercise boys," he said.
As a young boy, when Hildebrandt mentioned to his father he might like to be a jockey, his father told him it was too dangerous.
Hildebrandt's father, who is in his 90s, was a jockey for Sanford until he was severely injured in the 1940s.
However, Hildebrandt said his father's years as a jockey are still the years his dad, one of the oldest living stakes-winning jockeys in America, reminisces about the most.
On July 24, the Sanford Stakes will run for the 98th time. The race is named for Stephen Sanford and his son, John, in recognition of their contributions to thoroughbred racing. Hildebrandt said the trophy is still presented by Sanford descendants and three generations will be at the race this year.
Two local harness racing stables have had their share of success in the last three decades.
Gary Dudka of Diamond Creek Stables in Amsterdam owns and trained Quick Comeonover, who was inducted into the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame on May 14.
Arthur "Skip" and Wendy Spring of W. Springtime Racing Stable in Johnstown are the former owners of the 2001 Horse of the Year, Bunny Lake, who was inducted into the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame and the national Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 2010.
Dudka purchased Quick Comeonover for $4,500 in a yearling auction.
"One good thing I can say about this is that you can buy a horse and make money," he said.
The Springs paid $37,000 for Bunny Lake as a yearling and $39,000 for another champion horse, Dancinwiththestarz.
"We got lucky with both of them," Wendy Spring said.
Arthur Spring said $60,000 is an average price for a standardbred, but a lot sell for less than $50,000.
"The average person or even millionaires would never get a horse like Bunny Lake or Dancinwiththestarz," he said. "They're kind of like Secretariat. These two mares are like trying to get one like Secretariat."
Dudka agreed. "You might only have one of them in a lifetime," he said.
Bunny Lake is now owned by Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania, producing championship offspring. Dancinwiththestarz, who suffered a career-ending injury in 2010, will live the rest of her days at the Springs' farm.
"Skip made a promise to her in the winner's circle [of her last race]," said Wendy Spring. "He promised her, and I heard him, that she would never go. We're going to honor that. And that's a commitment because they live until they're 30 or 35."
"She'll probably outlive me," joked Arthur Spring.
The Springs mostly race their horses at downstate and New Jersey tracks, except for the Sire Stakes finals at Saratoga, because Saratoga normally doesn't offer the types of races they enter. However, their presence is still there, as the driveway entering Saratoga Casino and Raceway is named Bunny Lake Drive.
Dudka was the president of the Saratoga Harness Horseperson's Association for five years and does all his racing at Saratoga.
"When I became the president of the Horsemen, I devoted myself to Saratoga," he said. "How can you promote a business if you're not there?"
Dudka said having the racino at the track has increased the purses, causing the track to flourish.
"It's a lot of nice money. It's incentive for everybody. They're doing good at the track. Now they're going to 15 races," he said.
In his book, "Riders Up," Hildebrandt's father wrote that when he was a jockey a man would own 40 or 50 horses, but now 40 or 50 people own a horse. He was writing about syndicates, in which a group of investors share the cost of a racehorse.
Ted Hoye, who has owned "pieces of horses on and off for 20 years," explained that many people participate in these groups because of the expense of training thoroughbreds. He said the average owner loses money because only about one in five horses pays its own way.
"It's considered to be a high risk game where it should be just discretionary income going into it, not the grocery money," he said. "The exciting thing about it is, it's like owning your own sports franchise. It's like owning the Dallas Cowboys on a much smaller scale."
The Springs also share ownership of their horses.
"We have partners on all of our horses," said Arthur Spring. "We don't own any of them outright, but we own a good bit of each of them."
Gary Dudka, who is gradually turning the training business over to his son, Paul, said he used to have a horse partner. His partner got out of it, but Dudka stuck with it.
"I race a lot," Dudka said. "I really love it. I really enjoy it."