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Amsterdam’s Kentucky Derby Double Shot 

A pair of horses with Carpet City connections get their long overdue day in the spotlight. 

After his horse George Smith won the 1916 Kentucky Derby, Amsterdam’s John Sanford was described as “the happiest man at the track.” (Courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame)

Even the most devout Thoroughbred racing aficionados probably couldn’t tell you much, if anything, about horses George Smith or Clyde Van Dusen. And it’s understandable. Although each won the Kentucky Derby, both quickly faded into obscurity. But for Capital Region racing fans, they should be rediscovered and lauded. That’s because George Smith, who won the Derby in 1916, and Clyde Van Dusen, in 1929, were both owned by natives of Amsterdam.

George Smith

Although the first Derby was run all the way back in 1875, it had only recently grown from a regional event into a national spectacle when George Smith went to the post for the race’s 42nd edition. With more than 60,000 fans in attendance, George Smith, named after a famous gambler and owned by Amsterdam’s John Sanford of Hurricana Stock Farm, put on a thrilling performance, defeating British import Star Hawk in a desperate finish. With Hall of Fame jockey John Loftus in the irons, George Smith covered the 1¼-mile journey in 2:04. The New York Times described Sanford as “the happiest man on the track” and added that George Smith was “still full of fire” after the race. “[Sanford] paid $22,500 for the colt last year just to win the Derby with him this spring, and the colt had lived up to his promise,” the newspaper reported.  

George Smith went on to enjoy a solid career, winning 17 of his 31 starts. His most famous win after the Derby was in the 1918 Bowie Handicap in Maryland, in which he defeated fellow Derby winners Exterminator and Omar Khayyam. After a disappointing stallion career at Hurricana Farm, George Smith was donated to Breeding Bureau of The Jockey Club. In 1927, he was sent to the US Army Remount Service, where he sired military horses for his remaining years. He died in 1933 at the age of 20. 

Clyde Van Dusen

Clyde Van Dusen, on the other hand, a gelded son of Man o’ War, was both bred and owned by Amsterdam businessman Herbert P. Gardner. A small horse weighing around 900 pounds, he was given his name by Gardner as a tribute to his trainer. Yes, Clyde Van Dusen (the horse) was trained by Clyde Van Dusen (the man). Although he had some success prior to the Derby, the equine Clyde and every other horse in the field was supposed to be running for place money behind heavy favorite Blue Larkspur, a future Hall of Famer. The weather, however, turned the track into a swamp on Derby Day 1929. “Man o’ War’s line went marching on today when Clyde Van Dusen, gelded son of the superhorse, plunged through the deepest mud Kentucky has known in years to win the fifty-fifth running of the Kentucky Derby,” the Times reported. “Never faltering, never minding in the least the treacherous footing, Clyde Van Dusen carried H. P. Gardner’s colors to their first Derby victory.” Leading from start to finish, Clyde Van Dusen slogged through in 2:104⁄5, one of the slowest winning Derby times on record for the 1¼-mile distance. 

Interestingly, Gardner was not among the crowd of 75,000 in attendance at Churchill Downs that day to see Clyde Van Dusen defeat Naishapur by two lengths (the favored Blue Larkspur finished fourth). “Mr. Gardner did not see the triumph of his horse,” the Times noted. “Trainer Van Dusen said his employer stayed away from the track for fear that the excitement of the contest would be too much for him as he is advanced in years.”

Sadly, Clyde Van Dusen never won another notable race after the Derby—and in his career, garnered a disappointing 12 wins in 42 starts. He made his final appearance on a track in 1937 at the age of 11 when he was paraded with six other famous geldings—including Hall of Famers Sarazen and Jolly Roger—at Lexington’s then-new Keeneland course. Clyde Van Dusen died in 1948 at the age of 22, and it would be 74 years before another gelding won the Derby. The horse that did it? None other than Saratoga hero Funny Cide.                

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