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How the Native Dancer Statue Became Saratoga’s Gateway

Everything you need to know about one of the Spa City's most popular landmarks.

Saratoga’s Native Dancer statue is the city’s version of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” or “Hollywood” sign.(Francesco D'Amico)

It’s a greeting fit for a world-renowned racing town. As you drive down Union Avenue, past Saratoga Race Course and the line of mighty Victorians, you’ll find, at the foot of the grand boulevard—or the top of Congress Park, depending on your vantage point—a majestic bronze statue glinting in the summer sun. Depicted is Hall of Fame racehorse Native Dancer, with fellow Hall of Famer Eric Guerin aboard, beckoning you in with the simple message: “Welcome to Saratoga Springs.” The larger-than-life statue serves a dual purpose as both the gateway to the Spa City—it’s our “Welcome to Las Vegas” or “Hollywood” sign—and as a shrine to the late Marylou Whitney, the iconic philanthropist and socialite known as the “Queen of Saratoga,” who gifted it to us. 

The flesh-and-blood Thoroughbred, Native Dancer, also known as the “Gray Ghost,” was both a champion racehorse and star of the nascent television age in the early 1950s. Owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt—a relative of Marylou’s second husband, Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney—Native Dancer went four for four in stakes race wins at Saratoga in ’52 as a 2-year-old, a record that went unmatched for 65 years. The following year, he won two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, before heading to Saratoga to triumph in the Travers Stakes. Afterwards, Native Dancer even got his moment in the sun on the cover of Time magazine.

Marylou and her husband, John Hendrickson, commissioned the statue in 2015 to celebrate Saratoga’s centennial, with the bronze sculpture completed by equine artist Gwen Reardon. The finished product was positioned in its place of honor and dedicated in the pocket-sized Centennial Park, which was renamed Marylou Whitney Park in honor of Saratoga’s fallen Queen shortly after her death last July. Today, flowers surround the statue, plumes of water shoot up around it from small fountains, and lights keep it aglow at night. 

“Mrs. Whitney and Mr. Hendrickson made a very special contribution [to the city],” says Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly of the statue. “It’s a place they designed and created themselves, and in just a short time, it’s become one of our most popular landmarks, a place that everyone who visits us hears about and makes a special trip to see.” 

This strange summer, when the horses will likely run without spectators to watch them, one can only hope that Marylou Whitney Park will continue doing its essential job of welcoming in tourists, less than a mile from the historic track. “That special place is part of the legacy she leaves us,” says Mayor Kelly. And it’s that legacy that will be there next year, welcoming those same fans back.

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Karen Bjornland

An award-winning writer, Contributing Editor Karen Bjornland has been contributing to saratoga living for 12 years. Her work has also appeared in Adirondack Life, the Albany Times Union and Schenectady's Daily Gazette, among many other publications. She lives outside of Saratoga Springs in Greenfield Center.

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