The Grand Dame of Saratoga has died.
Marylou Whitney, the 93-year-old socialite, philanthropist and racehorse owner whose vivacious personality, boundless generosity, and lavish sense of style helped to define the classy Saratoga experience that has evolved over several generations, passed away on Friday at her Cady Hill estate in Saratoga Springs, New York, after an extended illness.
The exact cause of death was not immediately announced. But Whitney’s passing was confirmed by both the New York Racing Association and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
At Saratoga Race Course, where Whitney joyfully cheered on her horses for some 60 years from her front-row clubhouse box with the distinctive blue seats that matched her racing silks, the action paused after the fourth race as her passing was announced to racegoers with a brief tribute and a moment of silence.
Whitney’s death comes just two weeks shy of her scheduled Aug. 2 induction in the sport’s Hall of Fame in the “Pillars of the Turf” class.
As a Thoroughbred owner and breeder, Whitney enthusiastically carried on the traditions established by her late second husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney. Marylou Whitney Stables bred and raced Birdstone, the 2004 GI Belmont S. and GI Travers S. winner and owned and bred a GI Kentucky Oaks winner in Bird Town (Cape Town) in 2003.
But Whitney’s personal stamp on the sport and her unbridled love for her adopted hometown of Saratoga extended far beyond the winner’s circle.
As a busy society host and tireless patron of the arts, Whitney helped with the founding of two Saratoga institutions, the National Museum of Dance and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
For decades she hosted the elaborately themed Whitney Gala at Canfield Casino in Saratoga’s Congress Park. Although it was a coveted invite-only affair, the party always attracted hordes of onlookers eager to snap photos of celebrities or to catch party-favor souvenirs tossed to the crowd by guests.
But in 2012, Whitney ceased the Galas, instead opting for a small dinner party at her mansion to instead focus attention on the backstretch workers’ appreciation program she helped to create to provide over 1,000 Saratoga stable workers with dinners and activities every night during the upstate race meet.
And the horses themselves always had a special place in Whitney’s heart: She was a major contributor to the Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park and was active in various racehorse aftercare endeavors. Prior to the era of digital foal certificates, Whitney was known for attaching a personal note to the foal papers of her horses, just to let future owners know how to contact her if one of her horses ever needed a home.
“Racing is not just about the betting. The beauty, pageantry and flair is what separates our sport from any other,” Whitney said in a 2011 acceptance speech for the Eclipse Award of Merit. “Horses–and the people involved in racing–have always given me more than I could ever give them. Horse racing is where I feel the most alive, and at home. You are my family.”
A Bright Social Star on the Rise…
Marie Louise Schroeder was born Dec. 24, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father was a go-getter accountant who attended law school at night with future U.S. President Harry Truman. After graduating from Southwest High School, Marylou attended the University of Iowa, but had to return home at age 19 to help the family when her dad died. She got a job as a perky wartime radio disc jockey, creating a hit show for servicemen called “Private Smiles.”
After a year, the ambitious Marylou gambled on a trip to New York to launch a career as an actress, where she came off as “unquestionably glamorous” according to friends who would reminisce about her bold foray to the big city decades later. The acting career never panned out, but the fun-loving Midwesterner quickly established herself on the A-list social scene.
In 1948 Marylou married Frank Hosford, the heir to the John Deere fortune, and they had four children. They would eventually divorce, but it was during their separation that Marylou met C.V. Whitney in 1958 at a supper club in Phoenix. She became the fourth wife of the scion of two of the wealthiest families in America, and they had one daughter.
The Whitneys had many residences, but the one Marylou took a shine to was Cady Hill, an 1851 manor with 21 rooms on 135 acres in Saratoga Springs. Over time, she adorned it with tennis courts, Victorian gardens that were heated in winter, and even a private chapel.
Saratoga in the early 1960s was not the fashionable racing destination it is today. But Marylou was responsible for shaping it that way, largely at the urging of her sporting husband who is said to have encouraged her to “liven up the town” when the race meets were in session.
Marylou did just that, and then some. By the 1970s, her style and effusive personality were synonymous with the toney Saratoga experience.
By the 1980s though, C.V. Whitney started dispersing his racing stock, reportedly because he did not want to burden his wife with the business. When he died in 1992, the heir to rail and oil fortunes reportedly left Marylou with an estate valued at $100 million.
But it turned out that Marylou did indeed want to continue on with racing and breeding. After her second husband’s death, she put a lot of effort and money into trying to buy back the “Whitney mares” that had been the backbone of the family’s breeding stock.
One of them was Dear Birdie, who was named Broodmare of the Year in 2004 after producing Eclipse Award 3YO filly champ Bird Town and then the Belmont/Travers victor Birdstone. Between 2000 and 2019, Marylou Whitney Stables earned nine graded stakes victories and campaigned more than 190 winners.
When Birdstone won the Belmont S., his deep-stretch run snatched away a Triple Crown victory from Smarty Jones, the popular fan favorite. Whitney was apologetic after the race, and accepted the winning trophy with humility and grace knowing that many racing fans would rather have seen a history-making sweep of the Triple Crown.
She acted in a similar sporting fashion in the lead-up to the 2009 GI Preakness S. When it was suggested that a group of owners might collude to enter a lesser-qualified horse just to block the star filly Rachel Alexandra from running in the race, Whitney let it be known that, if needed, she would withdraw her own long-shot entrant just to clear the way for the filly to make history. Whitney’s generous offer kept the other owners from going through with their plan, so the scratch wasn’t necessary. Rachel Alexandra, of course, ended up winning the Preakness.
Away from horse racing, Whitney enjoyed diverse pursuits that are too numerous to list in full. Among them were travel (she had at least 11 residences), horseback riding, and polo. She was reportedly the largest private donor to the 1980 Olympic Winter Games held in Lake Placid. At one time Whitney owned 150 sled dogs and sponsored an Iditarod team that won the grueling Alaskan race four times.
Skimming news articles about Whitney yields an even broader sampling of her eclectic late-life adventures: Going on safari in Africa, dancing in the mud at a Grateful Dead concert, and riding roller coasters were all activities she enjoyed with her typical zeal and gusto.
In 1997, at age 72, Whitney married for a third time, wedding John Hendrickson, then a 32-year-old tennis champ and former aide to the governor of Alaska. Hendrickson had proposed to his bride at Buckingham Palace.
Whitney admirably strove to remain active even while battling a series of health setbacks in the autumn years of her life. Among them were a heart attack, septic shock, and gall bladder removal. A 2006 stroke drastically curtailed her activities, but she always made it a point to attend the races in Saratoga when she could during the 2010s decade. In 2018, Whitney was in attendance as the Racing Hall of Fame when three generations of Whitneys were inducted as Pillars of the Turf.
Whitney is survived by her husband, John Hendrickson, and her five children, Louise (“M’Lou”), Frank (“Hobbs”), Henry (“Hank”), Heather, and Cornelia. Funeral arrangements and plans for public remembrances are pending.
The Industry Remembers Marylou Whitney…
“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.”
–NTRA President & CEO Alex Waldrop
“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.” –The Jockey Club
“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.” –National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
“Like all of us in the racing world, we are deeply saddened by the passing of Marylou Whitney today. Whether it was her extraordinary philanthropic endeavors, her festive galas, or her racing stable of stakes winners, Marylou devoted all of her energies to our sport and its traditions, most prominently, her beloved Saratoga. Marylou has left an indelible mark of distinction, class and style upon Thoroughbred racing. Our sincere condolences to her husband, John, and Marylou’s extended family.” –Statement from Breeders’ Cup Ltd.
“On behalf of The Adelphi Hotel, we are deeply saddened by the loss of our Queen of Saratoga, Mrs. Marylou Whitney. Our deepest sympathies go out to her husband John, her children, family and friends. Mrs. Whitney was a true visionary and we will forever be grateful for her endless philanthropic and humanitarian contributions to our own Saratoga Springs community along with her incredible impact on the sport and culture of Thoroughbred racing. For this and all that she was, she will forever be kept in our hearts and held in the highest esteem.” –Larry Roth, Adelphi Hotel, Saratoga