A Weekend to Remember and Celebrate Marylou Whitney

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This weekend in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will be a celebration of the life of Hall of Famer Marylou Whitney, who passed away July 19. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

On the afternoon of July 19, when the sorrowful news spread about the death of Marylou Whitney at the age of 93, it was nearly impossible for anyone who knew her to hold back the tears.

“There have been some sad days since then,” said Maureen Lewi, a community leader in Saratoga who was one of her best and closest friends since the 1970s.

Yet two weeks later, on Aug. 2, the mood will be far different in the city she loved more than any other.

Tears will give way to cheers of appreciation as a woman best known singularly as “Marylou” will be celebrated for a lifetime in which she touched the lives of a multitude of people in an unforgettable manner and rejuvenated the floundering city of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and its aging Victorian-era racetrack, saving them from oblivion by using her charm, wit, and philanthropic nature.

“She was a special woman,” said Ian Wilkes, the trainer of her racing stable at the time of her passing. “Words can’t fully describe what she meant to everyone. The time I spent with her was precious.”

And yet Friday, people like Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson, and Lewi, and countless others will try their best to express their love and appreciation for “The Queen of Saratoga” on a day when she will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf and have the clubhouse entrance at her beloved Saratoga Race Course named in her honor.

Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson in 2012.

A day later — when the 92nd running of the Whitney Stakes, a race honoring the many contributions of the Whitney family to the sport, will be contested — will be “Marylou Whitney Day” at the Spa, and fans have been encouraged to honor her by wearing pink, her favorite color.

“Marylou was integral in making our summer meet at Saratoga the success that it is today. It is truly fitting to have her name serve as a warm welcome to the many racing fans who pass through our clubhouse gates each summer,” New York Racing Association President and CEO David O’Rourke said. “Marylou’s impact on racing and the community as a whole cannot be overstated. She was a passionate horsewoman who demonstrated unmatched generosity and grace. We look forward to honoring her memory while celebrating her many contributions to the Spa.”

Away from the racetrack, Centennial Park, which was built with funding from Whitney and Hendrickson and where they donated a statue of Native Dancer to greet visitors to the city, will be renamed “Marylou Whitney Park,” adding to the long list of places in town, such as Saratoga Hospital or the Whitney Viewing Stand at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track, where the Whitney name has already been affixed.

“There’s been a lot of reflection going on this week,” Lewi said. “So many people are thinking about her and the tremendous things she did, and the one common theme, wherever you go, be it the supermarket or the racetrack, is that there will never be another Marylou. She was one of a kind.”

Even in an era of Twitter feuds, there’s no denying Saratoga and Saratoga Race Course will never have someone else like Marylou Whitney to call its own. 

“She was a special lady,” said Nick Zito, who trained Whitney’s stable during the height of its success in the early 2000s. “When they talk about the end of an era, they know what they were talking about. I’m not saying there are not a lot of nice, young people in the game, but there’s only a handful left like her. There will never be another Saratogian like her. That’s how amazing she was to this community.”

Her induction into the Hall of Fame will spotlight Whitney’s numerous achievements, such as receiving the 2010 Eclipse Award of Merit, her membership in The Jockey Club, or her 2015 inclusion in Saratoga’s “Walk of Fame.” Yet when people remember Whitney, most likely they will not dwell on her awards but fondly recall her for the way she lived life to the fullest with a magnetism, grace, and compassion for others that made her so special and irreplaceable.

Marylou Whitney (Eclipse Sportswire)

Most of all, while time catches up with everyone, Whitney’s popularity and the respect and admiration for her aged like the finest wine.

When her husband of 34 years, Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, died in 1992, the 67-year-old Marylou continued to move forward with her life. She married Hendrickson in 1997, and she belied her age by climbing mountains or riding a dogsled in Alaska in her 70s.

She bought back some of the mares Sonny sold when he was nearing death and gave their offspring to Zito to train. She was rewarded in her late 70s by winning the 2004 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes with Birdstone and the 2003 Kentucky Oaks with the champion 3-year-old filly Bird Town, becoming the first woman in 80 years to own and breed a Kentucky Oaks winner. When Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes, spoiling Smarty Jones ‘ bid for a Triple Crown, she spoke more about her compassion for Smarty Jones’ connections than her own joy.

A stroke in 2006 slowed her but never stopped her.

In response to her vivacious personality, an increasingly younger generation embraced her.

“She was a 93-year-old rock star,” Zito said. “That’s what she was. She was embraced everywhere she went. I’ve been in places in racing, and I’m not trying to be a jerk, where people would see me and say, ‘There’s Nick Zito.’ When I was with Marylou, I never heard anyone say, ‘There’s Nick Zito.’ It’s always been, ‘There’s Marylou.’ Everyone took second fiddle to her.”

Marylou Whitney first came to Saratoga in 1958, when she married Sonny Whitney, a scion of the famed and fabulously wealthy Whitney and Vanderbilt families, and took up residence in their Cady Hill mansion. In the ensuing 61 years, what she gave Saratoga was a gift that can never be repaid. When others were deserting Saratoga in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she worked tirelessly in the public spotlight and behind the scenes to foster a new attitude about the town and its racetrack.

Among the people Whitney worked with to revitalize Saratoga was Ed Lewi, Maureen’s late husband and a master of public relations. When Ed and Maureen Lewi first met Marylou and Sonny, NYRA was losing interest in Saratoga. NYRA had spent tens of millions of dollars to rebuild Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack, and the crowds at the two downstate tracks dwarfed the amount of people who attended and played the races at Saratoga.

In 1970, average attendance in July at Aqueduct was 33,017 with a daily handle of $3.5 million. That year’s fall meet at Belmont posted averages of 27,425 in attendance and $3.1 million in wagering. Yet when NYRA shipped its operation north, daily attendance at Saratoga slipped to 17,659 with an average handle of $1.4 million.

Marylou Whitney trading card. (Courtesy of NYRA)

In addition, the town began to lose businesses at an alarming rate, making NYRA wonder whether it was worth the time and effort to move its operation away from the New York City area for a 24-day meet.

“It wasn’t just the racetrack,” Lewi said. “It was the town that was in terrible disrepair. Everything had stagnated. The attendance at the racetrack was awful, and the merchants and hotels were suffering.”

At the time, Marylou Whitney was the belle of the ball at the summer’s most fashionable parties, and when the town and racing needed her most, she became their fairy godmother.

“Sonny said to her, ‘With my money and your popularity, we can bring this town back,’“ Lewi related.

And so they did, with Marylou becoming the wondrous face of Saratoga. It became her passion in life to promote Saratoga. She and Sonny were instrumental in the building of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and bringing the National Museum of Dance to Saratoga, and she encouraged businesses and friends to remain loyal to the city and the racetrack.

Whether it was riding an elephant or using her charisma to convince a reporter from “NBC Nightly News” to turn a one-minute segment on Saratoga into a three-day series, she could always be counted on to work in the best interests of Saratoga.

“When you needed a favor, she never failed,” Zito said. “We all know about the so many wonderful things she did and the donations she made, but she also did so many things for people that she never spoke about. That was huge.”

Thanks in large part to her, the situation has flipped in New York racing. Saratoga is now the premier meet in the nation, with averages of 28,103 in attendance and $16.4 million in all-sources wagering in 2018, while on most days attendance at Belmont Park and Aqueduct has dwindled well below 10,000.

“She saved Saratoga Race Course, no question about it,” Lewi said.

Why Marylou became so beloved was easy to understand. She was a socialite who could be found in the front row of the clubhouse box seats in the high-rent district near the finish line at Saratoga, yet she never backed away from spending time with the blue-collar families who filled the racetrack’s backyard or backstretch workers.

Marylou Whitney (Eclipse Sportswire)

“Marylou would walk through the backyard at the racetrack, and there would be tumultuous shouting for ‘Marylou, Marylou.’ People would raise their beer cans to toast her. She would talk to little kids. She just had a ball out there. She was just a very warm person,” Lewi said.

Lewi told of the times when Marylou would spend her afternoons at a senior center, conversing with the people there and being a friend to them.

“She was wonderful, even when people weren’t looking. She would pack her lunch in a brown paper bag, get in her car and drive to the senior center, and have lunch with the people there. That was so Marylou,” Lewi said.

She was also a best friend to the backstretch workers at Saratoga. A founding member of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, she and Hendrickson, who was named the president of the racing museum in Saratoga in 2017, were instrumental in the creation of the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program, which provides invaluable support, activities, and resources for the many backstretch workers living away from home during the Spa’s eight-weekend meet.

“She had dinners with kings and queens, and then she would be just as interested to sit at table at a backstretch dinner. People would stand in line to talk with her. She would listen to their problems and try to help them or comfort them by holding their hand and telling them to pray to God and things would be better. People felt better after talking to her,” Lewi said.

She also helped to tear down barriers as noted by Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who was known as “The King of Saratoga” for winning 14 riding titles at the Spa.

When Cordero first came to the United States from Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, he faced resistance in trying to ride for New York’s elite stables. He said it was Marylou and her husband who were among the first to support him and provide him with an opportunity to ride stakes-quality horses and jump-start a career in which he won 7,057 races.

“When I first got here and started riding in the 1960s, there was a lot of racism. If you were Spanish or black, you didn’t get much of a chance to ride. Some restaurants wouldn’t serve you. It took me a long time to ride for most of the big stables, but Marylou and C.V. and the Phipps stable were the first ones to give me a chance,” Cordero said. “She was so nice to me all the time. She would invite me to parties. She would take care of the backstretch people. She made me change my mind about people. I thought a lot of those rich people were mean, but she was a beautiful lady who treated me well. She never did anything to make me feel bad.”

And so, this weekend, while Marylou Whitney takes her rightful place among the racing’s greatest stars in the Hall of Fame and her name becomes attached to more of Saratoga’s fabric, the surest bet of the Saratoga season is that special memories will be the order of the day when an incomparable woman, “The Queen of Saratoga,” once again stands center stage.

“I will be happy for Marylou and it will be emotional, but I am going to try and be happy for her and celebrate all she did for racing,” Lewi said. “There will be other days to remember other things, but on Friday, we will be thinking about all of the great things she did for racing. I’ll be thinking about the fun things at the racetrack with her. She made everything fun.”

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