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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


On Friday of Hall of Fame morning, a capacity crowd listened intently as Marylou Whitney’s husband John Hendrickson acknowledged his late wife’s admission into racing’s pantheon. But long before racing’s great lady was acknowledged as a Pillar of the Turf, she was a Pillar of the Saratoga community.

“Thank you for giving Marylou the highest honor in racing” said Hendrickson. “…She told me she wanted to dedicate her induction to the horses and the people that love them, especially the unsung heroes – the backstretch workers. She said horse racing gave her the most incredible life and she was grateful. She loved the sport and all of you with all her heart.”

At the conclusion of Hendrickson’s remarks, those in attendance began to applaud respectfully. Master of ceremonies Tom Durkin stood mute, allowing the moment to play. But as he stepped up to the microphone again, he noticed a gentlemen upstairs stand as applause continued.

He was followed by another man, then another, and not long thereafter the entire assembly was standing, polite applause becoming more of a rousing tribute for a woman whose love of Thoroughbred racing was as apparent as the statue of Native Dancer she commissioned to welcome visitors to her beloved Saratoga Springs.

MARYLOU WHITNEY, The Queen of Saratoga
photo: Toni Pricci

For all the attendant publicity that surrounds the Doyen of Saratoga, there was a private, respectful and spiritual person below the image that became the cornerstone of a legacy truly earned, a responsibility she never took for granted. “She loved frivolity but was far from being frivolous,” Durkin said by phone from Saratoga.

Friday, the day before Saratoga’s most prestigious race for aspiring champions, the day the clubhouse gate forever became known as the “Marylou Whitney Entrance,” the day before the garden surrounding Native Dancer’s likeness was christened “Marylou Whitney Park,” there also was a profound sense of loss inside the racing community.

Long before Marylou Whitney was a Pillar of the Turf, the “Savior of Saratoga” was a Pillar of the Saratoga Backstretch.

Quietly every year, at a six-figure cost, Marylou and John devoted their time and energy to the people who tend Thoroughbreds. They sponsor movie nights, bingo, karaoke, and language-learning nights among other activities.

[Ed. Note: On Saturday, Gov Andrew Cuomo announced that a permanent building, the Marylou Whitney Pavilion, will be erected to replace the tent and will be ready in time for the 2020 Saratoga racing season].

As part of a Whitney Backstretch Appreciation initiative, they have a tent erected inside the Oklahoma section of Saratoga Race Course and host a dinner every Sunday for as many as a hundred backstretch workers–and it’s not typical White House hamburger fare.

Tables with tablecloths replete with silverware and china offer surf and turf and chicken; real food for working families related by blood or a shared bond for tending equine lives. The couple joined them for dinner each week.

A personal anecdote and insights from Mr. Durkin: “I’m a bachelor and John and Marylou would take in a few orphans for the holiday. When I first stepped inside Cady Hill, the first thing that strikes you is a sense of family, how family-oriented their lives are.

“There were pictures of family everywhere; not ostentatious, very homey, though there was the odd picture of Marylou with Queen Elizabeth. Beyond that, it was clear that over a long life that she was a spiritual person. There’s a chapel on the grounds where people gather regularly.

“Before dinner, Marylou took out Sonny’s bible [second husband, the late Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney] and read some of her favorite passages, followed by a tradition where everyone around the table holds hands and express their own thoughts of a spiritual nature.”

Cady Hill, an old stagecoach inn, was bought by Sonny Whitney in the 1950s and became their home, his favorite among nine residences from around the world. Several decades later Marylou began a personal project to “light up” sleepy Saratoga and revive the popularity of Thoroughbred racing. And so she began.

Marylou founded the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center where the New York City ballet take up residency and built a state of the art Emergency Room and contributed to the Radiation Oncology Center at Saratoga Hospital.

As the largest private land owner in New York State, she constructed the Marylou Whitney Medical Complex at Deerland Camps in Long Lake, New York—where there stands another prayer structure overlooking the lake–and made large donations to the Long Lake Library and United Methodist Church.

As a past President of the New York Turf Writers Association, we were invited to a party at Cady Hill for assembled media and horsemen. We stayed in our lane, but visited briefly to exchange pleasantries and thank Marylou for her hospitality. She was real and warm–everything you hope upon meeting a member of “high society.”  

At the track Friday and Saturday, there were lots of pink banners and clothing commemorating Marylou’s life, celebrating her boundless generosity to people, places and Thoroughbreds. And her spirit: Anyone who saw Birdstone’s Travers watched as Marylou battled the elements; sideways rain in the windy gloaming at Saratoga.

Each year in advance of Saratoga’s signature event, the New York Racing Association hosts a dinner for the owners of the preceding year’s Travers. Sitting right up front in 2005 were Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson. NYRA’s race caller hosted the event:

“When Marylou Whitney’s Birdstone won last year’s Travers,” began Tom Durkin, “it was the darkest day in the history of Saratoga.” At first, the gathering was stunned. Durkin looked down to see Marylou’s reaction; slack-jawed, but Durkin waited it out.

Slowly, Marylou put all the words together and began to smile, then laugh. The gathering followed suit. It was the kind a reaction to events one would expect to see when in the presence of royalty.

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