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Women have played key roles in horse racing since the venerable sport’s earliest days.
Yet few women – or men for that matter – at any level of the sport created a legacy that can rival the respect and importance of Marylou Whitney.
Whitney, who died July 19, 2019, at age 93, did so much more than simply race in the famed Eton blue and brown silks. She became the first woman in 80 years to breed and own a Kentucky Oaks winner. She won the Belmont Stakes and Travers in the same year.
However, those accomplishments, stellar as they might be, are just a small part of what she meant to racing at Saratoga and life in the city of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Considered by many “The Grand Dame of Saratoga,” the philanthropist and socialite was a driving force in the 1960s and 1970s who helped save Saratoga when the racetrack was the weakest of the New York Racing Association’s three tracks. She also played a leading role in the rejuvenation that turned Saratoga County into one of the most thriving communities in the nation.
“Her commitment to the city, the racecourse, the racecourse family, is beyond what anyone can imagine,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said in 2017. “In a lot of major cities you can identify a handful of people who led the way in the key projects that revitalized the city. Many of those people are gone and have been replaced by corporations, but that hasn’t happened in Saratoga. Where Marylou goes, the city follows.”
Around historic Saratoga Race Course, which dates back to 1863, there was the same level of respect and admiration for Whitney.
“Racing needs more people like Marylou. Obviously, we’re not going to get them, but we need them. There’s a lot of people who are considered good people, but she’s the real deal. She’s a true friend that you can count on,” said Nick Zito, who trained Whitney’s Belmont/Travers winner Birdstone and her Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town, in 2017. “When you say legend, she’s the epitome of what that word means. She’s a legend, a legend in so many ways.”
As beloved as Whitney may be in every corner of the Saratoga’s Victorian era racetrack, her most ardent fans no doubt reside in the Spa’s backstretch. Whitney and her husband of more than 20 years, John Hendrickson, created the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program to make life at Saratoga more enjoyable for the stable workers who are uprooted from their downstate homes for about seven weeks.
“My favorite example of how generous Marylou and John are is how they fund the activities for all of the backstretch workers during the 40 days at Saratoga,” Shimkus said in 2017. “There are games, activities, education, food, fun for families, and it’s Marylou and John who make it happen. I believe backstretch workers here at Saratoga are cared for better than at any other racetrack because of Marylou and John and her leadership and her commitment to making sure Saratoga is exceptional in every way imaginable.”
And those are just a few of the many reasons why Saratoga and Marylou Whitney have been synonymous for more than 50 years.
“Marylou was Saratoga’s secret weapon and [was] racing’s No. 1 friend. She crossed over into so many areas,” said Maureen Lewi, one of Whitney’s close friends for more than 40 years, in 2017. “Some people think of her as an owner and breeder but she also promoted racing and felt a great responsibility to her horses. She was the one who brought queens and princesses and movie stars to Saratoga and made it famous.”
Marylou Whitney was born on Dec. 24, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., and grew into an actress who appeared in movies and television shows and also hosted radio programs.
It was when she married Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney in 1958 that she became a fabric of the Saratoga community and its racetrack.
A son of one of the nation’s richest families, C.V. Whitney made his own mark as one of the founders of Pan American Airlines and a backer of the famous movie “Gone With the Wind.”
While Whitney owned a 1,000-acre farm in Lexington, Ky., the home dearest to Marylou’s heart was their 21-room, 135-acre Cady Hill mansion in Saratoga Springs.
Quickly, Marylou embraced the vibrant social life during August at Saratoga, but back then the city had little to offer in terms of a thriving downtown.
When the Northway, a highway which would eventually stretch from the New York City area to Canada, extended into Saratoga in 1963, there was an opportunity for change, which Marylou and C.V. Whitney seized.
She was a founder of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which opened in 1966 and would bring the Philadelphia Orchestra and major rock groups to Saratoga, as well as the National Museum of Dance.
Yet even with SPAC and the Northway, the city of Saratoga Springs was stagnant and it took some arm-twisting by Marylou and other prominent owners to convince NYRA to keep Saratoga open at a time when attendance and wagering at Saratoga was about half the average totals of bookend meets at Belmont Park and Aqueduct with considerably higher expenses.
“Sonny and I loved Saratoga so much,” Marylou said in July 2017 in a Thoroughbred Racing Commentary story on the amazing growth at Saratoga since the 1970s. “We knew it needed to be put on the map. Sonny told me, ‘I'm leaving it up to you to do everything you can to save Saratoga.’ So I did it with his urging. Everything at that time was dead here; the track was dead!”
To turn life in Saratoga around, she worked tirelessly with people like public relations expert Ed Lewi, Maureen Lewi’s husband who passed away in 2015, and Joe Dalton, the president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce from 1970 to 2010, to build up downtown and promote more interest in the racetrack among the local community.
“Marylou was very involved in maintaining the image of Saratoga as a great place to live in or visit,” Dalton said in the 2017 Thoroughbred Racing Commentary story. “She was always one of the best promoters of Saratoga. She did a lot to create an image of class for Saratoga that started to come into full effect in the mid-1970s.”
As more restaurants and bars opened in Saratoga and businesses began to return to the downtown area in the late 1970s, attendance and wagering at the racetrack began to surge to phenomenal heights. Saratoga regularly leads the nation in average daily attendance and handle, and the city is a thriving, year-round destination for tourists with an overflowing amount of dining and entertainment options and real estate prices that are skyrocketing.
“I am extremely proud, and so grateful for being able to play a major role in letting the world learn what a wonderful place Saratoga is,” Marylou said in the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary story. “It makes me so happy to see so many people having fun at the track and at all of the events throughout the city.”
While Marylou’s bond with the local community never waned, the Whitneys’ association with racing changed in 1984 when Sonny, at the age of 85, decided to disband his stable.
“Sonny told me he wanted to sell his horses because he was too old and it was too difficult to handle everything at his age,” Maureen Lewi said. “He gave a portion of the sales to his trainer, Elliott Burch, but he did not want to saddle Marylou with the responsibility of running the stable after he died. He wanted her to be free to travel, to enjoy life. He did not want to leave all of those responsibilities to her.”
Yet following her husband’s death in 1992, Marylou decided to open her own stable and purchased several of her husband’s broodmares from their new owners, including Dear Birdie, who became the dam of Bird Town and Birdstone.
She enjoyed her greatest success in 2003-'04 with Zito caring for her stable.
Bird Town won the 2003 Kentucky Oaks and Acorn and was named that year’s champion 3-year-old filly.
In 2004, Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes, thwarting Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid, and then captured the Travers minutes before an epic storm hit the Spa.
“Very few people make history like those horses did,” Zito said. “Birdstone beat Smarty Jones and he won the Travers in a scene out of ‘The Natural.’ ”
One thing that never changed nor slowed, even after she suffered a stroke in 2006, was Whitney’s willingness to fund charitable endeavors. To list all of the benefits she hosted and donations she and Hendrickson have made would match the pages of “War and Peace.”
Some that stand out are:
- The creation of the Hoofprints Walk of Fame outside Saratoga’s clubhouse entrance that honors some of the great champions who have raced there.
- Founder and fundraiser for the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington.
- A founding member of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
In addition, to commemorate Saratoga Springs’ 100th year as a city in 2015, Whitney and Hendrickson presented the community with a statue of Native Dancer outside of Congress Park on Union Avenue that welcomes visitors to the area.
“As part of the Centennial celebration, Marylou and John conceived the statue of Native Dancer, with a fountain, a rose garden, and lights and they gave it to the city as a gift. There are park benches there and a walkway,” Shimkus said in 2017. “It’s become one of the most photographed locations in the city. It’s one of those places where you have an elaborated array of flowers, a statue, and an inscription that says ‘Welcome to Saratoga Springs’ all in one place, so for tourists it’s one of the places you want to go to and take pictures.”
NYRA and the racing community did their part over the years to thank Whitney in numerous ways. The Whitney Handicap was originally named in honor of C.V. and other members of his family, but in recent years it had become a day when Marylou and Hendrickson took center stage at her beloved racetrack, greeting a legion of friends and presenting the trophy to winning connections of the Grade 1 race.
“When she was recovering from her stroke it was her desire to be at the races that motivated her to make a recovery,” Lewi said of the Whitney Stakes.
Whitney was also presented with the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2010 and was elected to The Jockey Club in 2011.
In 2015, she was named “First Lady of the Kentucky Oaks” for her charitable endeavors.
Closer to home in Saratoga, in 2015 NYRA enshrined Whitney in their Walk of Fame, where she is celebrated along with Spa legends such as Angel Cordero Jr., Allen Jerkens, and Tom Durkin.
Quite fittingly, in 2013 the Whitney Viewing Stand was built to overlook Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track. A gift to honor Whitney from NYRA and Saratoga 150 Committee members Charles Wait of Adirondack Trust and Bill and Gary Dake of Stewart’s Shops, the tower provides fans a panoramic view of morning workouts.
“The Whitney Viewing Stand harkens back to the older days of the racetrack and it has become a destination of its own for people to go and see,” Shimkus said. “Everyone has access to it, which was something Marylou insisted upon.”
The list doesn’t stop there, yet there is something else that Lewi believes would be a completely fitting way to honor and pay tribute to Whitney.
“They have a rose garden for Marylou in Saratoga and I know she’ll go down in the history books for all she has done for this city,” Lewi said. “But I also believe there should a statue of her downtown. A big one, of her dressed in a ball gown. It would be perfect.”
The perfect tribute for the perfect goodwill ambassador of horse racing and Saratoga.
Note: This story was originally published in August 2017 and has been updated.
- In 1995, just shy of her 70th birthday, Marylou Whitney and Norman Vaughan led a six-person expedition to the South Pole. During the trip, she endured temperatures of minus 50 degrees and stayed in tents on ice three miles thick.
- The Intensive Care Unit at Saratoga Hospital is named the Marylou Whitney and Desmond DelGiacco, MD ICU.
- During World War II, Whitney hosted a radio show called Private Smiles and was honored as a USO Woman of the Year for her support of the organization. As a tribute to that show, C.V. Whitney named one of his horses Pvt. Smiles. Unfortunately, Pvt. Smiles the horse, who won just one of 19 starts, was not nearly as successful as Private Smiles the radio show, which was immensely popular with servicemen. The horse, though, was second in the 1973 Jersey Derby and raced in that year’s Belmont Stakes against Secretariat. Pvt. Smiles was ridden in the Belmont by Danny Gargan, currently a New York-based trainer.