John Hendrickson stood quietly in the aftermath of McKinzie’s win in the Grade 1, $980,000 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
He was exhausted.
With Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Mike Smith engulfed by a scrum just a few yards away, Hendrickson was content to slip to the side of the winner’s circle with memories of his late wife, the great Marylou Whitney, flashing through his mind.
“That was a wonderful race, and I think she would be happy that the day was a celebration,” he said. “A lot of people were wearing pink in her honor, which was very nice. It’s overwhelming.”
The spirit of “The Queen of Saratoga” hovered over the Spa Aug. 3 on Marylou Whitney Day, named for the late philanthropist whose contributions to racing and the town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., earned her the nickname. She passed away July 19 at age 93, two weeks before her Aug. 2 induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and the storied race that bears her family name.
After accepting the Hall of Fame induction on her behalf Friday, Hendrickson wore his heart on his sleeve and a pink rose in his seersucker lapel to present the Whitney trophy Saturday — the same day he stood by the side of the New York Governor to announce a permanent hospitality facility for backstretch workers to be built at the New York track.
Finally, with the sun on its downward journey and McKinzie’s name in the record books, the faithful husband finished the last of his social duties and slipped from public figure back to simply a man, grieving the loss of his wife.
“I’m exhausted,” he repeated. “They asked me to watch a tribute to her [at the Hall of Fame ceremony] and then give a speech. It’s a lot. But I know she’s happy.”
And as he watched the race was he wishing Marylou was still beside him?
“Of course I was. For the rest of my life,” he said.
Baffert was also overcome with emotion as he described how it felt to win the Whitney for the first time with a horse named after his dear friend Brad McKinzie, the late Los Alamitos Race Course executive who passed away in August 2017.
“I told John Hendrickson, ‘I’m just as emotional, because I was thinking about Brad McKinzie and how we loved him,’ ” the trainer said. “I started choking up. It was very emotional for me. I know his mother’s watching, all his friends are watching. McKinzie will always be at Saratoga [in the record books] there with the best, and that’s important.
“I’m just glad that this horse is as good as he is, because we named him at Brad’s funeral.”
McKinzie did his namesake proud with a strong 1 3/4-length victory over the late-closing Yoshida in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” event for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Asked for run leaving the gate, the 4-year-old son of Street Sense took up a tracking position behind Preservationist while that one set opening fractions of :23.77 and :47.48, and had 1 1/2 lengths to make up on the leader through three-quarters in 1:11.30. Smith kept his mount four wide in second, then asked for more heading for home. As Preservationist weakened, McKinzie charged clear under a hand ride, and held safe through a 1:35.01 mile. Yoshida, spun seven wide off the turn for home, closed with a powerful late kick from seventh under Joel Rosario but could not get to his forwardly placed rival in time.
“Yoshida came at me with a great run, and Joel Rosario is so sharp. He’s a great rider,” Smith said. “He knows not to come right next to me, because this horse will take off. So he kind of fooled us a little and went way away from us. But I put the whip in my left hand and I cocked his head out, and once he saw them, I didn’t even have to use it.”
McKinzie, who entered Saturday’s race off a traffic-troubled, runner-up finish in the June 8 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park, cruised home in a final time of 1:47.10 on a fast track and returned $3.70 on a $2 win ticket as the 4-5 favorite in a field of seven.
After Yoshida came Vino Rosso, Preservationist, Forewarned, Monongahela, and Imperative. Thunder Snow was scratched.
Saturday’s 11-race card generated an all-sources handle record of $31,835,863, eclipsing the previous Whitney Day record of $30,153,138 set in 2017. On-track handle was $7,078,192 with reported paid attendance of 40,791.
“Watching all the crowd when they went in the gate, it was just packed all the way up there [on the apron],” Baffert said. “Just a beautiful sight. When you see that, you know that racing is still alive and strong, so it’s good to see that.”
It was the second Whitney win for Smith, who won the 1993 edition with Brunswick, and the first for Baffert and owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman.
“I’ve never won a Whitney, so it was the first thing I told the owners, ‘I got my Whitney!’ ” Baffert said. “It’s sad that Marylou wasn’t here. I’d really like that. You know, that’s the only thing missing. She was always so nice to us.
“My group, they just want to run, travel, have fun, and enjoy this weather and racing. And when you get a good horse, you go travel and take on the best and find out what you have. I could have stayed home for a million-dollar race in my backyard, but we wanted to come and do it here, in front of this unbelievable crowd. It’s tough racing. You have to bring really good horses here. You’d better come with a good one.
“I was nervous today, I’ve been nervous because I knew down deep he could win the race. I was going to be very disappointed if he didn’t win. I knew he’s that kind of horse. I’ve had really good horses, and he’s ranked right up there with them. I was going to be just totally shocked if he didn’t win today, but the way he did it was really impressive. I’m just glad we got it done. The connections, they’re great guys, and Jane Lyons who bred him, also happens to be here.”
McKinzie was bred in Kentucky by Lyons’ Summer Wind Farm out of the Petionville mare Runway Model. Baffert selected McKinzie from Lane’s End’s consignment to the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, where he proved to be a $170,000 bargain buy.
“He was the last horse in the [session],” the trainer said. “I remember, second night of the September sale and I hung around to the last. I saw him in the back and I went, ‘That’s a good-looking horse,’ and got lucky. You know, you buy a lot of them, and hope one can run.”
Indeed, this one can. He improved his earnings to $2,238,560, with seven wins and four seconds from 12 starts, and picked up his fourth top-level win to go along with the 2018 Malibu Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby and the 2017 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. Since breaking his maiden at first asking in 2017, he has raced exclusively in stakes company.
“He’s been through a lot of DQs and everything and had some hard luck. ... But maybe he’ll just keep moving forward, and he should,” Baffert said. “He’s getting better and better. To me, he’s the best horse in the country.”