"Of course, it still comes up all the time, and I know it'll be worse than ever this year with the 100th. You understand what Herb has to go through? You understand that?"
Far from a soft Kentucky May, fresh snow covers the ground and the tart morning air cuts clean. Hollie Hughes, 86 years old, waits with his horses in a stable, as he has on 25,000 other mornings in his life. He first came to the San-ford Stud when he was a boy, when Grover Cleveland was President, the second time, of course. In 1905, when he was 17, he started working for Sanford. He has been training for Sanford going on 60 years. He won the Derby for Sanford in 1916 with a black colt named George Smith.
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. Most people are ravaged by time, but Mr. Hughes seems only to have been jostled. "They say I've got the blood pressure of a 12-year-old," he exclaims, more with wonder than pride, in a voice full and resonant. His eyes are especially vivid, since there are no glasses to get in the way. Against the cold this morning he wears an overcoat, a fedora and a pair of rubbers. His main ally is what purports to be an electric heater; it has skyrocketed the tack-room temperature to a point slightly above the freezing mark.
There are moments when Mr. Hughes can be somewhat disconcerting; passing references to "the '40s" or " '51" turn out to mean the 1840s and 1851. But there is no ambiguity when he talks about his Derby. The chart of the race suggests that the second-place finisher. Star Hawk, was the better horse, and a news report of the day was more explicit: "Star Hawk was left at the barrier...and Jockey Lilley took him into every pocket he could find." Hollie Hughes will have none of that. He thinks history has shortchanged George Smith, his Derby winner:
"I lived about a mile from the Sanford Farm, in Amsterdam, N. Y. The farm's been going about a hundred years now. General Sanford started it, although he was never a general. It was just that he went to West Point back when Grant and what's-his-name—right, Lee—when Grant and Lee were going there, so they called him General.
"The farm was 28 miles from Saratoga, and when we first started we used to walk the horses the 28 miles over there to run them. I did anything to be done at the time; I wasn't particular. Then I was foreman, and the training thing just developed along. They engaged me to be trainer in the middle of the Saratoga meeting of 1914.
"We bought George Smith as a 2-year-old the next year, 1915. He had been racing up in Canada and had been winning everything up there. I say everything because he had won every race. Then we raced him once that fall, down at Laurel in October, and when he won that we began to think, hell, this horse might win the Derby. The Derby was coming along then. Mr. Whitney had won it that year with Regret.
"So we shipped George Smith down to Charleston. The last year they had racing down there was 1913, and this was '15, but there were quite a number of stables wintering there. Col. Bradley had his horses there. A.K. Macomber was the other big stable. He had married Myrtle Harkness. That's where the money came from: her father was one of the original Standard Oil people. Walter Jennings trained for Mr. Macomber, and we got to be great pals. He would kid me about what this horse he had would do to my black horse in the Derby. Yes, this horse of his would be Star Hawk.
"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. And we were just trying to help the horse. They don't give a damn now. Put the money up, before Christmas, after Christmas, and they'll be there, running.
"Then we went over to Louisville. The Derby was run on the 13th that year, I'm pretty sure. But you can look that up. George Smith was coming up to it well. He trained real easy. He was a rather rangy sort, a magnificent type of horse to go a distance of ground. He was a perfect-mannered horse, too, no more trouble than a pet cat. Most people think he was named after Pittsburgh Phil because that happened to be Pittsburgh Phil's real name, George Smith. But this is not the case. He was named by a fellow named Eddie McBride, who comes from Baltimore, where he peddled ice, and when he had the horse he named him for a friend of his up in Canada. I never met this George Smith, not even after we won the Derby. He just never appeared.