The Sanford Stakes and its Notorious Legacy

The Spa Celebrates 150 Years

Saratoga 150 YearsThis Friday, to much fanfare, Saratoga begins its summer meet.  This year is special for the historic track, though – Saratoga is celebrating its 150th year of existence.  It has been 150 years of great history, as “The Spa” has played host to champions for a century and a half.  It’s where two year-olds come to prove themselves, where older horses compete in prestigious handicaps, and where three year-olds test each other again in the Travers Stakes, Saratoga’s “Midsummer Derby.”  Upstate New York’s summer racing haven is always exciting.

TVG Coaching Club American OaksOn Sunday, the Sanford Stakes (G2) will run for the 99th time.  All but three of those times were at Saratoga.  The race is the first of a trio of two year-old male races at Saratoga, the latter two being the Saratoga Special (G2) and the Hopeful Stakes (G1).  Favored for the race at the present time is undefeated Debt Ceiling, who splashed home by open lengths in Churchill Down’s Bashford Manor (G3) last time out.  Will he become part of the lore that is Saratoga?  Or will the Spa live up to its other name, “The Graveyard of Champions,” and another horse surprises in victory?

The 7th Sanford Stakes- The “Upset”

No matter what happens this Sunday, this race’s history is set firmly in stone.  However, in its 99 years, the Sanford is remembered most for its infamous seventh edition.


Golden BroomIt was 1919.  Sir Barton had become the first ever Triple Crown winner – although no one knew it at the time – and was well on his way to clinching the Horse of the Year title.  Meanwhile, a big two year-old colt named Man o’ War was starting to grab the attention of New York racing fans.  “Big Red,” as they called him, had been purchased the previous year at the Saratoga yearling sale at a price of $5,000 (a relative steal, considering what he would go on to do).  After five easy winning efforts down the Hudson, Man o’ War made his Saratoga debut in victorious fashion, pulling away from his rivals a nonchalant winner of the United States Hotel Stakes.

UpsetIn the Sanford Stakes, Man o’ War would face Golden Broom, a chestnut colt owned by a relative of Big Red’s owner, Samuel Riddle.  Golden Broom was coming off of a win in the Saratoga Special Stakes.  Also part of the field was a colt named Upset.  Owned by Harry Payne Whitney, a leading Thoroughbred owner, the chestnut racehorse had finished a distant second in the United States Hotel Stakes in his last start.

MahubahA few years previous, the dams of Man o’ War and Upset had met on the track.  Mahubah and Pankhurst had battled it out head to head – with Pankhurst, Upset’s dam, coming out on top.  No one would remember that strange coincidence until the events of August 13, 1919.

Man o’ War was heavily favored to win the Sanford, going to post at odds of 1-2.  Golden Broom was at 11-5, while Upset was far behind at 8-1.  Big Red would carry 130 pounds, an impost he hadn’t even broken a sweat under in his short career.  130 pounds is more than most horses carry in their lifetime; to do it successfully as a two year-old is an outstanding feat.  Upset carried 15 pounds less than his great rival.  Would it make a difference?

Man O' War With Groom Will HarbutIn those days, there were no starting gates.  Horses began races behind webbing, waiting for a signal from the official starter to break free.  Therefore, starts were incredibly long and drawn out as horses fussed and fidgeted and sometimes, if agitated, broke through the barrier.  Man o’ War, a notoriously temperamental colt, delayed starts for his entire career.  This time, however, it was the hot-headed Golden Broom who held up the Sanford, charging through the barrier three times before finally settling down enough to begin.

Disaster struck in the first few seconds of the race.  When starter Cassidy finally gave the signal, all horses got off to a good break – all except Man o’ War.  The big chestnut colt was turned at an odd angle at the time of the start.  Man o’ War, with his body crooked to the line, would get the jump on only two horses.  Turning swiftly, he dashed after Golden Broom and Upset, who had gotten off to brilliant starts and were now head and head for the lead.  Without a good break, Man o’ War couldn’t achieve good placement.  In the middle of his seventh race, the seventh running of the Sanford Memorial Stakes, Big Red was boxed in.

John LoftusThere were only two options for Man o’ War and his jockey Loftus – wait for the leaders to drift out and go through an opening on the inside, or swing abruptly to the outside under that heavy impost of 130.  Golden Broom quit in the stretch, his fragile hooves cracking under the strain of running with the fleet-footed Upset.  After checking twice, there were no other options – Man o’ War must make a move on the outside.  Loftus sent his colt after Upset.  Free to run, Man o’ War exploded, taking off and making up as much ground as he possibly good.  Bill Knapp, aboard Upset, begged his mount for everything he had.  Even carrying 15 pounds less, Upset’s lead was being swallowed up by the giant strides of that great red champion.

Man o’ War’s giant strides, however, were not enough to win the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes.  Upset hung on by a fast-diminishing half-length.  A few strides after the wire, Man o’ War blew past his rival, pulling ahead in front.  The colt might not have even known that he lost.

Man O' War Sanford News ClippingThe term “upset” has been in use since the late 1800s, although, throughout history, it has been incorrectly attributed to originate with the shocking defeat of Man o’ War.  In this case, Upset was aptly named.  Big Red would never lose a race again, and would only be tested like that once more, in the 1920 Dwyer Stakes, where he won in a drive against John P. Grier.  Pankhurst’s son by Whisk Broom had made racing history by defeating the horse that some – including me – consider to be the greatest horse to set foot on a racetrack.

Was it foul play?  Some certainly thought so.  How else could Man o’ War get into that much trouble and lose to a horse that he had dusted just a few days previous?  In those days, sports fixing was incredibly common.  After all, 1919 was the year that the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.  Could 1919 have also played host to another huge sporting fix – the Sanford Memorial Stakes?  Some thought that Johnny Loftus and Bill Knapp had worked together to throw the race and earn extra money through gambling.  Those assumptions were further fueled when Loftus and Knapp were denied riding licenses for 1920, the reason cited as a conspiracy regarding the Sanford Memorial Stakes.  However, these are all just rumors.  No one alive today knows the truth of it all, so Man o’ War’s only defeat will forever remain a mystery.

Man O' War with Earl SandeThroughout its long history, some remarkable horses have won the Sanford Stakes.  Tom Fool, Hail To Reason, Secretariat, and Affirmed are just some of the many champions that found their way into that race’s winner’s circle.  Out of all editions, though, none can match the stunning upset – by Upset – of Man o’ War in the mid-summer of 1919.  94 years later, and it’s still fresh in the minds of so many racing fans who weren’t even around to bear witness to that infamous Sanford Memorial Stakes.






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Emily White has been in love with horse racing since she was nine years old. The first race she ever watched was the 2004 Belmont Stakes - she was hooked instantly. Ever since, she has enjoyed writing about the sport. Her favorite aspects of the industry are sales and breeding; she loves researching pedigrees. Next year, Emily will be attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a journalism major, with an intent to transfer to the University of Kentucky the following year to pursue her dreams of being a turf writer.

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One Response to “The Sanford Stakes and its Notorious Legacy”

  1. John Harris says:

    Hi; .. unfortunately, mistakes of fact and typos distract from what is otherwise an interesting and informative essay. Regards.
    A few examples: where used “as he possibly good,” the word “good” s/b “could.”
    The starter was Charles Pettingill, not Mars Cassidy. The jockey “up” on MOW in the photo is Clarence Kummer; not Sande (an often common mistake as there exists a rather similar photo with Sande “up.”

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