WAYNE, NJ - The Village Inn on Runnymede Drive in Wayne to most is just a fine dining restaurant with a cozy bar; a nice place to enjoy a good meal and time with friends. Not many truly understand the historic nature of the building itself, or of its famous inhabitant revered across two continents in the late 19th century.
Paul Bastante of Silk City Films has learned more about Wayne’s rich history than most people have forgotten. It’s his job. His feature-length film documentary Hills and Valleys: A Journey Through Wayne will premiere on November 2, and its first two showings at the 406 seat Rosen Performing Arts Center are sold out.
Of all the features in all of the documentaries he’s made, the story of the racehorse Preakness is his favorite.
Sired by the famed thoroughbred stud Lexington and carried by a mare named Bay Leaf, Preakness was born in Kentucky in 1867, was purchased at auction by wealthy Jute manufacturer Milton Holbrook Sanford for $4,000 and named after Sanford’s stables in Wayne, New Jersey.
“Sanford was one of the richest men in New England at the time,” said Bastante. “He was passionate about horse racing and when he moved to New York City, he wanted to find a place for his stables and eventually found this spot right here.” Bastante pointed to the wooded lot next to the Village Inn, which is now a part of Gregg Froehner Memorial Park, and swept his arm to encompass Sienna Village. “He purchased two lots of land, one was sixty-four acres and the other was six acres, and this is where he set up.”
Holbrook named his stables the Preakness Stud and it became his thoroughbred horse racing and breeding operation.
“Preakness was a beautiful bay colt, brown and muscular and they knew right away that he was a great horse,” said Bastante. “But what they didn’t know is how much of a handful the horse would turn out to be. He didn’t like people, he was aloof, he bucked riders and was very difficult to deal with.”
With Sanford, it was different. “Sanford loved the horse and the horse loved Sanford,” said Bastante. “They had an uncommon bond and when Sanford’s stable managers and horse trainers told him that he needed to get rid of Preakness, Sanford refused.” It was a wise decision because Preakness placed in the money in thirty-five out of forty races, earning Sanford a huge return on his investment.
America knows the name Preakness because it is the second race in the triple crown, held at Pimlico Race Course every year in May. The inaugural race at the course was a private race discussed at a dinner party of which Sanford and then Governor of Maryland, Oden Bowie were in attendance. “It was a black-tie affair and after dinner, the men retired to the den to smoke cigars and drink the finest scotch, and they are each bragging about the yearling horses in their stables,” said Bastante. The talk turns to a challenge and they agree to hold a race in two years when their horses are at the racing age of three. Saratoga and the American Jockey Club both bid to hold the event, but Bowie offers to build a state-of-the-art racecourse in Baltimore and its agreed that the event would be held there. The stakes of the race was simply that the winner would get to host the losers for a dinner party, and so the race was called the Dinner Party Stakes.
“To show just how big horseracing was back in the 1860s and 1870s, three weeks after the race was announced and more than a year before the race happened, and even before the racetrack was built, betting began and Preakness was not a favorite,” said Bastante.
When Preakness showed up for his debut at Pimlico in 1870, he was laughed at. Some saying he looked more like a carthorse than a thoroughbred. But Preakness proved everyone, except Sanford wrong, winning the race by a wide margin. “In his first race, he wins an $18,000 purse,” said Bastante, “which was one of the biggest at the time.”
“In the early 1870s, Preakness dominates horseraceing and really made a name for himself,” said the filmmaker. “He’s very popular in the United States and in the world. He’s the most famous racehorse of his time.”
Bastante went on: “His best year was 1874 when Preakness ran in eight races, won four of them and came in second in the other four. It was also the year where he meets his nemesis Springbrook, whom Preakness could never beat. At the end of the racing season at the Saratoga cup, Springbrook beats Preakness by a nose.”
In 1875, Preakness faced Springbrook for the last time in his last race in the United States, once again at the Saratoga cup. “This time when the race starts, Springbrook goes to the front and Preakness settles in behind him,” said Bastante.
The Saratoga cup is a long two-and-a-quarter mile race, and Springbrook and Preakness soon leave the pack far behind. “It is just the two of them, and on the final turn, Preakness gains, pulling next to Springbrook.” Bastante tells the story, leaning forward, his words coming quicker his hands representing the two horses as he holds them next to each other. “Coming down the stretch, they are running stride-for-stride, nose-to-nose, leg-for-leg; the two horses looking like one. There was a huge crowd screaming and yelling in excitement as the horses tore down the track, jockeys urging them on. At the finish line, it was called a dead heat; a tie.” You can sense what Sanford’s frustration must’ve been like by watching Bastante say that last sentence.
There were no photo-finishes in 1875, so Preakness could only claim that he didn’t lose his last race with Springbrook.
“In the spring of 1876, Sanford fell on hard times, financially and shipped Preakness to England where he was also hugely popular. There Preakness ran one last final season in four races, winning the last race of his career before ending up in the claiming circle, where he was sold at auction to the Duke of Hamilton,” said Bastante.
“The Duke of Hamilton was a very rich horseracing breeder and trainer,” tells Bastante. “But, he’s also a fall-down drunk and a very mean person. He can’t get his life in order except for horseracing. And, from the very beginning Preakness hates him and doesn’t want anything to do with him.”
Continuing with a sigh, Bastante clearly turning dour with the telling, he says: “So, during a breeding session in the barn, the Duke gives an order that is ignored, and he strikes Preakness on the nose, who then hits back with his head. This enrages the Duke, who pulls out his gun and shoots Preakness dead.”
“Preakness was so popular that there was a huge uproar in England over his death and when news reached the United States, the uproar was even in larger,” said Bastante. “When Sanford receives the telegram with the news, he is horror-stricken and beats himself up the rest of his life.”
Two things happen that have preserved Preakness’ name in history. One, because of his death, new animal protection laws are passed in England that spread to the United States. Two: Sanford donates his original Dinner Party Stakes trophy to the Preakness race that was named for his horse.
John Martino, the owner of the Village Inn, can tell you the history of the paddock that became his restaurant. “This used to be a barn and the stables that held Sanford’s most famous horse Preakness,” Martino said. Pointing up at the ceiling in his dining room, Martino continued: “Back in January of this year, we did some remodeling and I had to keep these beams. They’re hand-hewn beams from the original structure, and I used them as the catalyst to bring the Village Inn back to its roots, back to its original barnhouse/stable design.”
This slice of history has been and continues to be preserved by Wayne residents over time in honor of the big, ungainly ‘carthorse’ that became an American champion, and a symbol for animal rights.
Preakness’ story comes to life in Bastante’s documentary. Although his first two showings are sold out, more are being scheduled. Keep an eye on his website and facebook page for more information: www.SilkCityFilms.com https://www.facebook.com/SilkCityFilms/