John Hay Whitney: Racing’s Great Ambassador

John Hay Whitney leads Stage Door Johnny into the 1968 Belmont Stakes winner's circle.
John Hay Whitney leads Stage Door Johnny into the 1968 Belmont Stakes winner's circle. (NYRA-Mike Sirico/BloodHorse)

The Whitney family has been involved in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing since the 1800s, and during that timeframe they’ve campaigned some of the greatest horses ever seen on the American turf. Their contributions to the sport have been immeasurable; to the extent that historic Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. honors the family each year with the running of the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.

Among the Whitneys whose names are instantly recognizable even to casual fans of racing history are Harry Payne “H.P.” Whitney (owner of 1915 Kentucky Derby winner Regret), Cornelius Vanderbilt “C.V.” Whitney (owner of two-time Horse of the Year Equipoise), and Marylou Whitney (owner of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone).

In contrast, the name John Hay “Jock” Whitney might not ring a bell, but that’s only because he didn’t race his most memorable horses under his own name. Instead, he and his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, campaigned a roster of champions under the legendary name of Greentree Stable.

John Hay Whitney, 6, in 1910 with Helen Hay Whitney. (WikiMedia Commons/Library of Congress)

As a member of the Whitney family, you can say that if Jock Whitney had been a Thoroughbred, he would have had the perfect pedigree for success in racing. Born on Aug. 17, 1904, Jock Whitney’s grandfather was the aforementioned H.P. Whitney, while his father, Payne Whitney, was the original founder of Greentree Stable, which was managed for many years by Jock Whitney’s mother, Helen Hay Whitney.

Also following in his ancestor’s footsteps, Jock Whitney was involved in much more than just horse racing. It seemed as though when Jock Whitney set his mind to accomplishing something, he went all-in and pushed until he succeeded at the highest level. As a child, he stuttered; throughout his life, his eyesight was poor. Neither affected his business and sporting acumen; indeed, he was one of those sportsmen engaged in so many different pursuits that his life story is not unlike a work of fiction.

Consider the following: At various times in his life, Jock Whitney was a movie producer, a Colonel in the U.S. military, the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and a producer of Broadway plays. And this doesn’t even touch on his work in banking and finances – he was the founder of the venture capital firm J. H. Whitney & Co.

Naturally, Jock Whitney wasn’t just any movie producer — he financed “Gone With the Wind.” And his service in the military was hardly of the quiet kind – he served during World War II and was captured by the Germans before making a daring escape. As told in the Sept. 15, 1944 edition of El Paso Times, Whitney: “escaped by leaping from a moving prison train as it slowly wended its way across southern France under almost incessant attack by American and British Planes, Allied artillery, and Maquis raids.”

All the while, Jock Whitney was slowly, quietly building up a presence in racing as a Thoroughbred owner and breeder. While his mother was managing Greentree Stable, Jock Whitney was developing prominent Thoroughbreds of his own while racing under a variety of names, including that of his Mare’s Nest Stud.

It wasn’t long before Jock Whitney was exerting an influence on both the racing and management sides of the sport. When his father, a member of The Jockey Club, passed away in 1927, Jock Whitney was elected to the organization the following year at the age of 24. A few years later, he helped create the American Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association.

Meanwhile, Jock Whitney’s horses were winning major races across the country. In 1936, his good colt Mr. Bones prevailed in the Dwyer Stakes and was beaten by just a neck in the Belmont Stakes, and the following year his 2-year-old filly Inhale won four important stakes races. During World War II, Jock Whitney’s horses were raced by Greentree Stable, for whom Whitney’s Four Freedoms rattled off wins in such historic stakes races as the 1944 Widener Handicap and Brooklyn Handicap.

But shortly after receiving the news of her son’s successful escape from German custody, Helen Hay Whitney passed away, leaving the future of Greentree Stable in doubt.

Any concerns that the Greentree name might fade away were put to rest when Jock Whitney and his sister Joan – herself active in breeding and racing Thoroughbreds – declared that they would continue on the family tradition and maintain Greentree Stable.

Tom Fool winning 1953 Brooklyn. (Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection)

Right away, they reaped rewards; at the time, Greentree’s top runner Devil Diver was putting the finishing touches on championship season, and in 1945 he welcomed the stable’s new management by winning the Paumonok, Metropolitan, and Suburban Handicaps during an abbreviated racing season.

With Devil Diver helping to ease the transition of power, Greentree Stable never missed a beat as “Jock and Joan” took command. One of the first horses they bred for Greentree was Capot, who promptly won 10 stakes races over the course of three years, including the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to be named Horse of the Year for 1949. A few years later, Tom Fool threw his hat in the ring as arguably the best horse ever raced by Greentree when he put together a flawless 10-for-10 Horse of the Year campaign in 1953, a season that included a rare sweep of the “Handicap Triple Crown” comprised of the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn Handicaps.

For nearly three more decades, until his passing in 1982, Jock Whitney remained a driving force behind Greentree and enjoyed the success of such top runners as 1968 Belmont Stakes winner Stage Door Johnny, 1978 champion older female Late Bloomer, and 1979 champion turf horse Bowl Game.

Many of Jock Whitney’s greatest racing moments occurred in North America, but his participation in the sport was international in scope and hardly contained to flat racing. He regularly raced horses in England and was an avid participant in major steeplechase races; one of his best runners, Easter Hero, was a two-time winner of England’s prestigious Cheltenham Gold Cup.

From a business point of view, it’s not hard to imagine that maintaining such a vast, worldwide stable was a less than lucrative enterprise for Jock Whitney. Then again, considering his wealth, the financial viability of his racing operations was of less importance than its sporting aspects, and for Jock Whitney, racing was truly a sport meant to be enjoyed for the love of the horses – the ultimate bottom line being of only secondary concern.

Jock Whitney conceded that racing, as a large industry, relies on commercialism – betting – to survive. But he also recognized, as did his mother, that viewing racing strictly as a business would ultimately be detrimental to the sport. Near the end of 1963, Jock Whitney gave a memorable speech at the Thoroughbred Club of America’s annual testimonial dinner, the transcript of which is published in William H. P. Robertson’s in-depth volume “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America.”

John Hay Whitney
John Hay Whitney (BloodHorse photo)

Jock Whitney’s speech was lengthy and touched on many topics, but primarily, he focused on “the spirit of racing” and how it related to commercialism, recalling how his mother once told him “We cannot allow the spirit of racing to be bought.”

“… Where do we draw the line that keeps commercialism within safe bounds? We draw it, I would submit, at that point at which the horse begins serving the ends of commercialism, rather than commercialism serving the needs of the horse. And we are getting dangerously close to that line, if indeed it hasn’t already been breached.

“… People often ask me why I still race in England. I race in England because I have had fun there, and because I still do. I am realist enough to know that English racing is not, in this age, a substitute for ours. It really sets no helpful example for American racing, except one. But that one is fundamental.

“On a big day at Newmarket, 10,000 is a big crowd. And very few of these get to sit down. But sitting or standing, they appreciate the horse. Not merely as a gambling device that happens to breathe, but as a horse – as a creature of flesh and blood and heart and spirit …

“What they have, and what we seem to be losing, is the personal interest in the animal. And this concern for the horse is central to the spirit of racing. This, and the fun of racing, are the spirit of racing. Lose this spirit, and there will be no racing –​​​​​​​ only races. This was what my mother meant when she said we ‘cannot allow the spirit of racing to be bought.’

“It will not be bought if we keep commercialism within bounds. Uncontrolled, commercialism can be our enemy. Contained, it can be our friend. But only we can contain it. Only we can bring about the return of the horse, and put the horse back in racing.”

Jock Whitney was, indeed, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but he was an important ambassador for Thoroughbred racing as well. In the long history of the sport, one can argue that racing has never had a greater ambassador than John Hay Whitney: businessman, producer, Colonel, and sportsman.

Fun Facts

  • While studying at Yale University, Jock Whitney was a participant in the sport of rowing. As told by author Edward Bowen in his book “Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Vol. 1),” Jock Whitney concluded that having shorter hair would cut down on wind resistance and allow his rowing crew to travel faster; the haircut he subsequently requested wound up being known as the “crew cut.”
  • Under various names, and with the assistance of Joan, Jock Whitney eventually bred more than 130 stakes winners between 1934 and 1982.
  • Thanks to an inheritance of $100 million, Jock Whitney was one of the richest men in North America.
  • In addition to producing “Gone With the Wind,” Jock Whitney was an investor in Technicolor.

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