Marylou Whitney, whose philanthropic initiatives and contributions to racing earned her the nicknames “Queen of Saratoga” and “Grand Dame of Saratoga” among other honors, died Friday, July 19, at her Cady Hill home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She was 93.
For seven decades, Mrs. Whitney was among the most successful owners in Thoroughbred racing. She married Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, one of the founders of the National Museum of Racing and Pan American Airlines, respectively, in 1958. Their stable embarked on a winning tradition, with Tompion capturing the Travers in 1960 and Chompion winning the Mid-Summer Derby in 1968.
The family's contributions to racing went beyond trips to the winner's circle. In the 1970s, the Whitneys helped convince the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) to keep Saratoga Race Course open as a viable part of its racing calendar at a time when wagering and attendance sagged. Their efforts and long-term vision continue to benefit racing, with the Saratoga meet attracting more than one million fans annually.
“An avid horsewoman and true lover of the sport, Mrs. Marylou Whitney was one of Thoroughbred racing's greatest ambassadors. As owner of her eponymous stable, Marylou was a top breeder and a committed supporter of the Thoroughbred industry, who delivered some of the most memorable moments in New York racing. Marylou's passion for racing was only matched by her love for the City of Saratoga Springs and her support for the backstretch community. Her generosity was unparalleled and the list of her contributions is endless. Saratoga would not be the destination it is today without the esteemed leadership, dedication and support of Marylou,” said NYRA CEO & President Dave O'Rourke. “Marylou's love of this sport and city will have a lasting impact on generations to come. On behalf of the New York Racing Association, we offer our deepest condolences to her beloved husband John, and their family and friends.”
Beyond racing, the Whitneys made a huge impact in the Saratoga community, founding the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which opened in 1966 and continues to host world-class musical and dance performances to this day, helping turn Saratoga into a true summer destination for tourists.
Following C.V. Whitney's death in 1992 at age 93, Mrs. Whitney opened her own stable, which garnered industry-wide acclaim with her Eton blue and brown silks quickly becoming synonymous with racing excellence. In 2003, Bird Town, trained by Nick Zito, made Whitney the first woman in 80 years to own and breed a Kentucky Oaks winner when she captured the “Lillies for the Fillies.” Mrs. Whitney and Zito continued to make history in 2004 when Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes, ending Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid, and then winning the Travers just before a massive rainstorm pelted Saratoga.
In all, Marylou Whitney Stables earned nine graded stakes victories and campaigned more than 190 winners from 2000-2019.
Born Marie Louise Schroeder on December 24, 1925, Mrs. Whitney grew up in Kansas City, Mo. The daughter of Harry Schroeder, an accountant who had attended law school with Harry Truman, and mother Marie Jean, Mrs. Whitney had an active childhood in which she was a member of Troop 44 of the Girl Scouts of America.
After graduating Southwest High School, she attended the University of Iowa for a time before working as an actress, appearing in movies and television shows. Her work in radio also brought her acclaim, highlighted by the show “Private Smiles” on KCKN, catering to servicemembers during World War II.
In 1994, Mrs. Whitney met John Hendrickson, who was working as an aide to Alaska's then-governor Wally Hickel. They married in Alaska in 1997, and the couple continued their philanthropic endeavors, serving as founding members of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and as founders of the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Ky.
Mrs. Whitney continued to make her mark beyond the scope of the racetrack itself, facilitating with her husband, John, the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program to help stable workers who are away from home during NYRA's Saratoga summer meet.
Mrs. Whitney was presented with an Eclipse Award of Merit in 2010 for her contributions to racing. She was elected to The Jockey Club in 2011. Other honors among a long litany include the moniker “First Lady of the Kentucky Oaks” in 2015 for her charitable works.
As an indelible part of Saratoga's history, the Whitney legacy can be seen all over the City of Saratoga Springs, including along famed Union Avenue outside of Congress Park where in 2015 Mrs. Whitney and Mr. Hendrickson gifted a statue of Native Dancer that has become a landmark at the start of the street where the famed racetrack sits. That same year, NYRA enshrined Mrs. Whitney in the Saratoga Walk of Fame, where the most legendary trainers, jockeys and owners in the Spa's rich history are honored.
In 2018, Mrs. Whitney was in attendance as the Racing Hall of Fame inducted three generations of Whitneys as Pillars of the Turf, including Sonny, his father, Harry Payne Whitney, and his grandfather Williams Collins Whitney, who purchased Saratoga Race Course in 1900 and helped create Belmont Park.
Mrs. Whitney is survived by her husband John Hendrickson and her five children, Louise “M'Lou”, Frank “Hobbs”, Henry “Hank,” Heather and Cornelia.
Statement from The Jockey Club: “The Jockey Club mourns the loss of Marylou Whitney, a true pioneer in horse racing. From her countless acts of generosity in support of racing's backstretch workers to her success as an owner and breeder, she made important and lasting contributions to our sport, especially in Saratoga, and she will be missed. We extend our condolences to Marylou Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson, and to her family and her many friends and fans.”
Alex Waldrop, president and CEO, National Thoroughbred Racing Association: “Marylou Whitney embodied all of the best qualities of the sport to which she devoted her time, heart, and resources. From her exceptional philanthropy to her innovative mind and indelible spirit, she was a champion of excellence in every endeavor she graced. The Thoroughbred racing community – and the world – have suffered a great loss but we are forever grateful for her lasting contributions to our sport.”
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame: “The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame extends its deepest condolences to the family of Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, on the passing of Mrs. Whitney. A kindhearted friend to the Museum, the sport of thoroughbred racing, and the Saratoga Springs community, Mrs. Whitney was a beloved and irreplaceable icon whose extraordinary legacy will have a lasting effect on future generations.”
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