Behind the Trophies: History harmed by museum theft

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Nobody will say it, and maybe the case will break, but the five historic trophies stolen from the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Sept. 12 may be long gone – melted and sold for their value in gold and silver.

That’s what happens when precious metals are selling for more than $1,300 an ounce. Do the math. A 60-ounce gold trophy is worth close to $80,000, and a target for quick-acting thieves, no matter the historical significance. The museum’s security systems worked, but the break-in lasted less than three minutes and the thief – who knew exactly what he was after – was gone before police arrived.

“It’s absolutely tragic,” said the museum’s Brien Bouyea. “Four of them were more than 100 years old. Whatever value an insurance company assigns is one thing, but they are irreplaceable. We’re trying to hold out hope that something breaks (in the case), but we’re afraid they’re gone. Who knows?”

The five stolen trophies:

  • 1903 Belmont Stakes trophy won by Africander.
  • 1903 Brighton Cup trophy won by Hermis.
  • 1905 Saratoga Special trophy won by Mohawk II.
  • 1914 Brook Handicap steeplechase trophy won by Compliment.
  • 1923 English Grand National trophy won by Sergeant Murphy.

Bouyea said the thief broke a door to gain entry and smashed display cases holding the trophies. He left with a duffel bag stuffed with stolen goods worth “hundreds of thousands” of dollars. Alarm sensors were tripped when the display cases were smashed and when the thief fled. Saratoga Springs police have enlisted help from state police and the FBI with video surveillance and other evidence. This week, the museum’s insurance company offered a $20,000 reward. Bouyea said there have been some indications that the crime is related to a break-in and trophy theft at the National Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, N.Y. in December.

The trophies have value for their gold and silver content, but are priceless artifacts when it comes to racing history. As Bouyea said, four are more than 100 years old.

grandnationalThe newest – the Grand National trophy – represents a milestone in steeplechasing as it was presented to owner Stephen “Laddie” Sanford after Sergeant Murphy became the first American-owned horse to win the famed English Grand National at Aintree. The silver trophy weighs more than 15 pounds.

From a base in Amsterdam, N.Y., the Sanford family was well known in racing, flat and steeplechase, with some of the country’s best runners emerging from Hurricana Farm (later called Sanford Stud Farm). The Sanfords also built a private training area at Saratoga Race Course, now the receiving barns, across Nelson Avenue from Clare Court. The family owned the Sanford Carpet Mills in Amsterdam and took part in racing for generations. Saratoga hosts the Sanford Stakes every year.

“Laddie” Sanford became a high-ranked polo player and was just 24 years old when he accepted that Grand National trophy for Sergeant Murphy, a horse purchased to be a foxhunter with the Leicestershire Hunts. The Irish-bred made seven starts in the National between 1918 and 1925 and finished fourth for Sanford in 1922. The next year, at 13, Sergeant Murphy won by 3 lengths under Capt. G.N. “Tuppy” Bennet. George Blackwell, who also won an English Derby, trained the winner.

Fifteen years after the historic win, the Sergeant Murphy story became the (loose) basis for a movie starring future President Ronald Reagan. A painting called “Sergeant Murphy and Things,” by Sir William Orpen, brought $213,000 at a Christie’s auction. A land preservation group in Maryland annually presents the Sergeant Murphy Cup for exceptional efforts toward the preservation of land in northern Baltimore and Harford counties.

And that’s just one trophy.

The Brook Handicap used to be one of American steeplechasing’s most important races. First run in 1905, the Brook counts among its previous winners five Hall of Famers.

– Jolly Roger, one of Greentree Stable’s famed Gashouse Gang, was the first. He won the Brook in 1927 while carrying 170 pounds (including Hall of Famer R.H. “Specs” Crawford). 

– Bushranger won the Brook in 1936, carrying 165 pounds for owner/breeder Joseph Widener and trainer J. Howard Lewis.

– Oedipus captured two Brooks, winning in 1950 and 1951, for Mrs. Ogden Phipps and Pete Bostwick. The son of Blue Larkspur carried 149 pounds (including Dooley Adams) as a 4-year-old and returned a year later to shoulder 161 (Albert Foot).

– Neji did them all one better, taking the Brook three times – 1954, 1955 and 1957. Hall of Famer Adams steered the champion, also owned by Phipps, home in the first two. Another Hall of Famer, Paddy Smithwick, was aboard for the third. Smithwick’s brother Mikey trained Neji, who finished third (under 175 pounds) while bidding for a fourth Brook in 1958.

– The Smithwick brothers won it again in 1964 with Bon Nouvel, who collected his second Brook the next season (with another Hall of Famer Tommy Walsh).

TheBrookBelmont Park hosted the first Brook, and the rest through 1962. Aqueduct became the venue for the next five years and the race returned to Belmont from 1966-71. Leo O’Brien won the final running, aboard eventual champion Shadow Brook for future Hall of Famer Sidney Watters Jr.  Tingle Creek, who became a legend in England, finished third.

Other heroes to win the Brook included Benguala, Trough Hill, Rouge Dragon and Duettiste among others. The stolen Brook trophy is an ornate gold cup with two handles and a lid.

The race was named after The Brook, a top steeplechaser before 1920, and was briefly revived at Belmont for a win by Flatterer in 1984. 


Any information or questions should be directed to the Saratoga Springs Police Department through Inv. Laura Emanatian at (518) 584-1800 ext. 3402 or Inv. James Bell at (518) 584-1800 ext. 3492.


Watch Sergeant Murphy in the 1923 Grand National.

A classic Sergeant Murphy painting.

Did you know Sergeant Murphy was a movie?