Marylou Whitney, the ‘Queen of Saratoga,’ Reigns at Rest

I had the honor of serving as president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters in 2013 when the organization honored Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, with the Joe Palmer Award for long and meritorious service to the sport of horse racing. Hendrickson had traveled to California to accept the honor at our annual dinner, part of the festivities surrounding the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita. Hendrickson called me a few hours before the function began, wanting to know how the organization, more than half a century old, was faring. I told him we had lost some members, as newspapers and magazines were struggling to survive in a rapidly changing market. Later that evening, after the award was presented, Hendrickson announced that he and Whitney had a presentation of their own: They would be donating $10,000 to underwrite the dinner. Writers and broadcasters in attendance were left speechless by the couple’s generosity.

A little more than a year before Whitney died on July 19, 2019, I interviewed her for my first and only time. I was putting together a series for the New York Racing Association (NYRA) in advance of the 150th anniversary of the Belmont Stakes, and one of the most prominent pieces of the puzzle was about the 2004 upset by Marylou Whitney Stables–bred Birdstone over that year’s Triple Crown threat, Smarty Jones. Incredibly, she told me how badly she wanted to see her winning horse’s competitor, Smarty Jones, who had risen from obscurity to national prominence, complete the historic Triple Crown sweep. She recounted how she had apologized to the horse’s owners, Pat and Roy Chapman, after the race, expressing how much she regretted the outcome. The more Whitney spoke to me, the more obvious it became how special a person she was. 

Whitney has been gone for nearly a year and a half now, but it doesn’t feel like it. Her legacy is just that powerful. “She will never die,” Hendrickson says of his late wife. “You look around Saratoga, and she is everywhere.” And he’s right: She co-founded the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, was a tremendous benefactor of Saratoga Hospital, funded the Museum of Dance, and gifted the Native Dancer statue to Saratoga. 

One of Whitney’s most cherished charities, the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program, continued its essential work during this past summer’s spectator-less track season. Since the virus made it impossible for backstretch workers and their families to gather for the program’s hugely popular Sunday dinners, grab-and-go meals were provided instead. 

This is just one example of how Whitney’s presence can still be felt in the everyday support of the track’s vital (but so often forgotten) backstretch workers and their families. 

Keeping with this spirit, last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared August 3 “Marylou Whitney Day” and announced that a pavilion would be erected in her honor at Saratoga Race Course. Despite a minor controversy this past summer about where the pavilion would be constructed, workers eventually broke ground on The Marylou Whitney Pavilion this past October, and NYRA says it’s expecting it to be ready for the 2021 season. It’ll be located next to the recreation center on the Oklahoma Training Track side of Union Avenue. On the same side of Union Ave., plans have been hatched to build a permanent on-track medical clinic for backstretch workers (it’s currently a trailer), to be managed by Saratoga Hospital and the aptly named Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST). To fund it, Hendrickson launched an online auction this past July and August of more than 1,700 pieces of memorabilia from his late wife’s personal collection, including dresses, jewelry and a car. “I had to go through each item individually and try to put a price on a memory,” says Hendrickson. “That was difficult.” In just a handful of days, the auction raised $400,000. (Ground is expected to be broken on the clinic this spring, confirms Jeffrey Methven, executive vice president of Saratoga Hospital.) Besides the clinic, there will also be a backstretch daycare center there, too, which is projected to be completed this winter and will open for the 2021 meet. The daycare center, which will be erected where Hendrickson initially thought his late wife’s pavilion was going—hence the minor controversy—was spearheaded by prominent horse owner and real estate developer Michael Dubb, in partnership with the Belmont Child Care Association.

Whitney gave so much to so many local charities that it’s impossible to single out just one that defines her legacy. But given her support of the track’s backstretch workers—and the crucial facilities for them going up in her name—it’s hard not to be a little biased. Hendrickson puts it best: “Everyone should feel loved at Saratoga. Everyone should have a great quality of life, including backstretch workers.”

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