This morning I went to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall
of Fame ceremony to honor the day’s first 2019 inductee, Marylou Whitney, but
stayed for all 16 – eleven other “Pillars of the Turf,” one jockey and three
horses in a two-hour-plus standing-room-only event.
It was an inspiring short course on some of the most
important names in horse racing over the last 100 years.
The inductees shared a common thread: a love for and dedication
to the sport. They spanned well over a century, including James R. Keene, born
in 1838, who built one of the country’s major breeding operations and was represented
by descendants, and 97-year-old James “Ted” Bassett III, a World War II Purple
Heart recipient and ultimately oversaw Keeneland, who graciously accepted the award
and his Hall of Fame jacket. The
National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame’s website has succinct writeups on all
The ceremonies took place not at the museum, which is well
worth a visit (catch the women in racing exhibit), but around the corner in the
Fasig-Tipton auction pavilion (where you can bid – or at least watch the bidding
– on yearlings this coming Monday and Tuesday).
When this year’s inductees were announced this spring, I was
glad that Marylou, at 93 years old, was among them. Though I know she’s earned many
prestigious honors over the years, I am sad that her passing, on July 19, came too
soon to collect this award or to celebrate one more Whitney Stakes, Saturday’s
big race. Her husband, John Hendrickson graciously accepted the Hall of Fame
honor on her behalf. The two have done a great deal not only to promote horse
racing, but also to improve the lives of the backstretch workers.
Separately, in his role as current president of the museum, Hendrickson
briefly talked about the $20 million theater in the round scheduled for
installation in the racing museum next year. Whitney and Hendrickson’s marks
are all around, often subtly, in innovations and gifts to the city and the
world of racing.
The stately “Welcome to Saratoga Springs” statue of Native
Dancer surrounded by flowers where Union Avenue meets Congress Park was one of Marylou
Whitney and John Hendrickson’s many exceptional contributions to this city. I
go by it all the time, and I always think of Marylou and John, always meaning
to tell them both, thank you. Thank you for this beautiful gift.
I think I told them all of this before. But I meant to send
Marylou a note about it a few weeks ago, when I saw people posing for photos in
front of the statue, as I often do, year-round. I procrastinated, as I often do,
even knowing that Marylou was in failing health. Yesterday, on July 19, 2019, she
passed away at her home in Saratoga Springs.
I first met Marylou close to 40 years ago, when I became managing
editor of The Saratogian. My husband and I enjoyed her black-tie summer galas, attended
by a mix of local people, big names in racing, and assorted celebrities. Crowds
would gather in Congress Park outside the Canfield Casino to watch Marylou’s grand
entrances and try to spot some of the rich and famous guests. Saratoga Springs
was revived as a place to be in no small part because of Marylou’s parties,
beginning well before my arrival in the city, the Whitneys’ generosity and
their role in horse racing, and the sheer power of her personality.
My colleague at The Saratogian, Jeannette Jordan, whose
duties included society coverage, and her husband, Augie, hit it off with
Marylou. They’d frequently meet up for dinner at places like Winslow’s. “You
didn’t have to have money to be a friend of hers. She loved everybody and was
kind to everybody,” Jeannette told Times Union reporter David Lombardo (yes, my
Yet not everyone was kind to Marylou. Sometimes people would
complain to me that the newspaper had “too much” coverage of Marylou Whitney. I’d
explain they were mistaken to brush her off as merely a socialite, the wife and
later widow of the accomplished C.V. Whitney, rather than the philanthropist,
horse owner and lover, and keen businesswoman she really was. They didn’t understand
or appreciate how important she has been, for decades, to Saratoga Springs and
horse racing. She did plenty for this city — without seeking recognition.
Marylou was extremely gracious, generous, smart — and
funny. A few years ago, she and her husband, John Hendrickson, were driving on
Route 50 heading home when they passed my husband and me walking to a show at the
Saratoga Performing Arts Center (which, by the way, she helped create back in
the 1960s and supported for decades). Months later we saw them, and Marylou
leaned in to tell me, “If you need a ride to SPAC, let me know.”
Marylou and John, nearly 40 years her junior, married in
1997. Longtime friend Maureen Lewi yesterday told The Times Union: “No one
thought so in the beginning, but it was a match made in heaven. They both know
how to have fun and they both have such generous hearts.” Maureen is right. John
has truly been a loving husband and, as the need arose, a devoted caregiver.
Marylou and John have generously donated millions of dollars,
countless hours and hands-on leadership to continue to benefit the city –
enhancing Saratoga Hospital and other health care institutions (especially in
Kentucky); creating, funding, organizing and attending programs for the
backstretch workers at Saratoga Race Course; underwriting much of the celebration
of local thoroughbred racing’s 150th anniversary in 2013, including
the old-fashioned Floral Fete. This was one of the most amazing, heart-warming
things I ever saw in this city – some 40,000 people lining Broadway to cheer a
parade of dozens of people on homemade floats.
Today I’ll brave the heat to visit the Congress Park garden of long-stem, scented pink Marylou Whitney roses that John commissioned for her 85th birthday. Classic, like Marylou herself. I’ll stop for a selfie at Native Dancer’s “Welcome to Saratoga Springs.” And I’ll say thank you, Marylou. Thank you for this beautiful gift. Thank you for everything.