A pall was cast over Saratoga, and spread throughout the racing world, Friday afternoon with news of the passing of Marylou Whitney. Respected as an owner/breeder and beloved as a philanthropist, the racing icon and doyenne of the Spa was 93.
Marylou married into one of the great racing families and campaigned horses for decades with her late husband, C.V. “Sonny” Whitney. After his death in 1992, she continued her involvement in the sport through her own breeding and racing operation and her charitable works.
Whitney’s homebred Birdstone famously thwarted Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont (G1), and went on to land the Travers (G1). The previous year, his half-sister Bird Town captured the Kentucky Oaks (G1) en route to champion three-year-old filly honors. Whitney’s last graded victory came June 15 at Churchill Downs, with the aptly named Hard Legacy, in the Regret (G3).
Aside from her success on the racetrack, the Marylou Whitney legacy has a strongly philanthropic tone, from establishing the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with Sonny in the 1960s, to her efforts in more recent years with husband John Hendrickson to support the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program. Married in 1997, Marylou and John were also involved in the foundation of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Markey Cancer Center.
Whitney’s list of honors includes the Eclipse Award of Merit (2010) and enshrinement on Saratoga’s Walk of Fame (2015). She will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf on August 2.
Dubbed the “Queen of Saratoga,” Whitney is survived by her husband, John, and her five children –Louise (“M’Lou”), Frank (“Hobbs”), Henry (“Hank”), Heather, and Cornelia.
The racing world joins her family in mourning, as expressed by the moment of silence observed at Saratoga, the formal statements issued by prominent organizations, and the flood of tributes offered on social media.
The 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.
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.
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.
New York Racing Association CEO & President Dave O’Rourke:
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. 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.”
Track announcer Larry Collmus on informing the Saratoga crowd:
That was one of the most difficult announcements I’ve ever had to make. Thank you for everything Mary Lou Whitney. You were truly the Queen! @TheNYRA
— Larry Collmus (@larrycollmus) July 19, 2019
Nick Zito on Marylou: “You know when someone passes and they say how great they were, in her case it’s absolutely true. She loved the horses, it was great for me to be associated with her. I’m so grateful I was a part of it. I can’t tell you how much I loved her.”
— David Grening (@DRFGrening) July 19, 2019
Marylou meant so much to so many people in horse racing and the Saratoga community. Our deepest condolences to her family and friends. RIP MaryLou Whitney #firstladyofracing #icon pic.twitter.com/CR3o9hYCYm
— Kiaran McLaughlin (@KPMRacingStable) July 19, 2019
We have lost an absolute treasure in Marylou Whitney. No proper words can do justice to what she meant to this industry and to all who knew and loved her. She was royalty in every sense. R.I.P.
— Alicia Wincze Hughes (@AHughesNTRA) July 19, 2019
#RIP Marylou Whitney. No superlative would be too superlative for her contributions to the American Turf.
— Ed DeRosa (@EJXD2) July 19, 2019
How lucky we were to have Marylou Whitney with us on all those Whitney days, & how lucky Saratoga’s backstretch workers were to have her & John Hendrickson’s support. Years ago, she stopped holding her summer gala & instead funded a backstretch program that she regularly attended
— Teresa Genaro (@BklynBckstretch) July 19, 2019
Gracious, generous Marylou Whitney won’t ever be gone.. She’ll remain an icon and exemplar of a tireless commitment to thoroughbred racing. pic.twitter.com/48mjQnOaoK
— Steve Byk (@Steve_Byk) July 19, 2019
Racing lost one of its true treasures with the passing of Marylou Whitney. If you have ever enjoyed a day at Saratoga, you have her to thank for saving the city and racetrack from obscurity. Condolences to John and her legion of family and friends. #RIP
— Bob Ehalt (@BobEhalt) July 19, 2019
It’s so incredibly fitting to me that Marylou Whitney should pass away on what would have been Opening Day at @TheNYRA Saratoga in any other year. RIP to a wonderful woman to whom we all owe so much.
— Sophie Shore (@Shore_Sophie) July 19, 2019
Quite frankly, if we hadn’t already cancelled tomorrow, I’d say we should go dark. Sigh.
— Susie (@ponyace) July 19, 2019
Keeneland remembers industry icon Marylou Whitney, a successful owner and breeder and who was Keeneland’s friend for decades. pic.twitter.com/FL62LMeiLv
— Keeneland (@keeneland) July 19, 2019
Our condolences to John Hendrickson and the family of Marylou Whitney. She was a absolute treasure in the horse industry. Saratoga will not be the same.
— Taylor Made Farm (@TaylorMadeSales) July 19, 2019
Lexington mourns the passing of Marylou Whitney, a leader of the Thoroughbred industry. She was a generous philanthropist whose gifts to the University of Kentucky and Cardinal Hill Hospital have improved the lives of thousands of Kentuckians.
— Mayor Linda Gorton (@MayorGorton) July 20, 2019
R.I.P. Marylou Whitney, who served as “First Lady of the Oaks” in 2015. Owned & bred 2003 Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town, whose son Bird Song would later win the Grade II Alysheba @ChurchillDowns on 2017 Oaks Day. Condolences to Whitney’s family, friends and numerous admirers. https://t.co/RThRv7diXj
— Churchill Downs PR (@DerbyMedia) July 19, 2019
Our deepest condolences to John Hendrickson and the family of Marylou Whitney. The world in general and all those now at The Spa will miss the generosity, grace and elegance of “The Queen of Saratoga.” pic.twitter.com/C4GkHH4Ph0
— Fasig-Tipton (@FasigTiptonCo) July 19, 2019
RIP Marylou Whitney. Thank you for all your did for the racing community. You will be missed more than words could possibly express. pic.twitter.com/0pOhhKU951
— Safety Net Foundation (@TJC_SafetyNet) July 19, 2019
Marylou Whitney’s contributions to racing and the rebirth of #Saratoga as well as numerous charitable endeavors will be remembered for generations to come. May she now rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/Q4bRmQBt8G
— Secretariat (@SECRETARIATofcl) July 19, 2019
RIP Marylou Whitney. She represented four generations of racing Whitneys when she appeared in the Saratoga winner’s circle for the family’s namesake stakes each August, and to see the love and respect people had for her was to know how much she had done for the sport.
— Jessica Chapel (@railbird) July 19, 2019
Words don’t come close to describing the profound impact Marylou Whitney made in horse racing. May her grace, her philanthropic efforts and her legacy serve as inspiration to all of us that we should always thrive to be better, do more good, care and give back. #ThankYouMarylou
— Gabby Gaudet (@Gabby_Gaudet_) July 19, 2019
For all of us that are members of the Saratoga racing community, we can never really descibe the Saratoga experience. Today we lost a major part of it.
RIP Marylou Whitney. pic.twitter.com/jDrInuTbHS
— Edward Stanco (@EdwardStanco) July 20, 2019
NATIVE DANCER and ERIC GUERIN, this lovely evening in Saratoga Springs, NY.
As always, thank you to Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson for making this sculpture a reality – and, of course, to sculptor Gwen Reardon for doing the same. pic.twitter.com/nbkUdhzqJE
— Barbara Livingston (@DRFLivingston) July 18, 2019
Some people, you think will live forever. Marylou Whitney was one of those, a part of the fabric of horseracing and of Saratoga in particular. She was an institution by name and by deed.
— Frances J Karon (@francesjkaron) July 19, 2019
As a writer, I could try to explain what Marylou Whitney meant to so many people and institutions, Saratoga Race Course especially. But some people leave writers without words, singers without notes, poets without meter. But when they think of them, they smile. RIP.
— Will Springstead (@WSpringsteadPSV) July 19, 2019