Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team in New York, compares the late Marylou Whitney to Johnny Appleseed.
“She's put these seeds all over that will outlive her and keep her good works going,” he said.
One of her great works and one her husband, John Hendrickson, remains deeply committed to continuing is the Backstretch Appreciation Program at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It ensures that workers who receive meager wages and sometimes less respect are provided with recreational and educational opportunities virtually every night in August until the meet concludes on Labor Day, Sept. 2.
Whitney, hailed as the “Queen of Saratoga” for her philanthropic nature, died on July 19 at age 93. She will long be remembered by those who toil seemingly endless hours to sustain a sport she so loved.
“I've been involved in the industry like 30 years now and there are not a lot of people who stand up for us. We do the most important work in the industry and we get left behind,” said Junior Mcfarland, a groom for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “Marylou Whitney stood up for us and she was a voice for us.”
The Backstretch Appreciation Program makes it impossible for any employee to feel left behind or left out. Dinners with varying ethnic themes are offered at the end of the racing card every Sunday night, from Mexican to Italian to barbeque.
This season will be highlighted by Thanksgiving Dinner with turkey and all the trimmings on Aug. 25 and concludes with various local restaurants providing the fare at Saratoga Gives Back Night. As many as 700 people have been fed in one evening.
Approximately 10-15 volunteers wait on tables and pay attention to every detail. When Italian food was served, the melodious voice of Frank Sinatra provided the background for diners who were largely Hispanic and speak little beyond Spanish and the language of horses.
“John and Marylou's vision was that it be high class, that they enjoy the same things as fans do when they come to the track,” Ruchames said.
Whitney and Hendrickson often joined the crowd – even if it was impossible for them to blend in.
“She would take the air out of the room, man,” Mcfarland said in recalling Whitney's arrivals. “Everyone knew what she stood for. Everyone loves Marylou Whitney for all of what she has done for us.”
Whitney enjoyed engaging backstretch workers in conversation. “She would not only acknowledge them but delight in being with them,” Ruchames said. “She would sometimes have someone translate, but it almost didn't matter. By her non-verbal communication, she spoke volumes to them and I think it made a real difference to them.”
Language classes are provided every Thursday night. On other evenings, workers are invited to make their own ice cream sundaes, participate in soccer or basketball tournaments or even cruise Lake George aboard the – we kid you not – Minne-Ha-Ha.
There is nothing, though, quite like Bingo Night, which is eagerly anticipated every Wednesday. Former track announcer Tom Durkin led the proceedings, calling out the combination of letters and numbers in English and Spanish, until his retirement in 2014. He lit up the night with a sense of humor that appeals to all nationalities.
“We just had a lot of fun with it,” Durkin said. “Sometimes I'd drop into my Italian-speaking mode and, boy, they'd give it to me.”
Luis Granderon, who calls races in Spanish for the New York Racing Association, succeeded Durkin. He brings his own level of excitement. “Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!” he exclaimed as a winner was identified. Then a hush fell over the room as the card was reviewed for accuracy.
“They hope somebody goes up there and says they're a winner and they're not a winner because they check out everything,” said Tom Burns, a volunteer in charge of distributing prizes that correspond to each of the 19 games scheduled.
False claims of victory are met by considerable hooting and hollering as the claimant sheepishly retreats from the announcer's stand. It is all part of the fun, of course, and wonderful camaraderie.
“Most of these people are just hard-working, family people who have their families in their home country,” Burns said. “They are sending money home and they are by themselves and so this is a night out for them.”
Workers turned bingo players perceive the stakes as high. Durkin described the prize list as “things that we take for granted that they don't always have.”
A recent Bingo session began with a salad, two slices of pizza each, a snack and a soft beverage. Bingo prizes and door prizes included two mountain bikes, a 32-inch television, a tablet, a container of laundry detergent, towels and gift cards to local stores. On the many nights that Hendrickson attends, he creates a buzz by distributing cash prizes of $100.
Mountain bikes are coveted.
“Everyone needs a bike here to get from one point to another,” Burns said. “The mountain bike is probably the number one prize because it is something they can immediately use. However, I have a lot of people who amazingly like the laundry bag and laundry detergent because they are constantly washing things, whether it is for them or the horses.”
Winners of two prizes on one night are treated to the same hooting and hollering as those who unwittingly make false claims of “Bingo.”
Events are held rain or shine beneath a tent. The setting is due to be significantly upgraded next summer. Plans have been announced for the construction of the Marylou Whitney Pavilion, a fitting tribute to a woman who never failed to remember those so often forgotten.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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