"A Whitney mare." Those three words have meant a lot to Thoroughbred breeders for more than 100 years. In 1930, after the death of Harry Payne (H.P.) Whitney, many questioned whether his son, Cornelius Vanderbilt (C.V.) Whitney, would carry on his father’s successes within the Thoroughbred industry. C.V. answered that question loud and clear over the next six decades, leaving a breeding legacy that rivals those of the all time greats: the Belmonts, E.R. Bradley, Federico Tesio, and the Aga Khan.
Among C.V.’s proudest achievements was breeding the great matriarch Almahmoud, second dam of Northern Dancer, whose bloodlines run throughout top pedigrees to this day. The primary strategy of both H.P. and C.V. Whitney was to breed to the Whitney mares that had proven themselves as fast and sound runners at the track. Both men believed strongly in the continuation of Whitney bloodlines rather than the incursion of new blood into the families.
Perhaps the most important influx of new blood for the future of the long and illustrious Whitney bloodlines came in 1958, and her name was Marylou Whitney. Marylou has carried on the remarkable Whitney breeding traditions just as her late husband, C.V., and his father before him. Following the dispersal of the Whitney breeding stock in the 1980s, Marylou made a personal mission of re-establishing the lineage of the family line when she began building back a band of the best of the Whitney broodmares. The first of these was Inca Legacy, granddaughter of the great Silver Spoon. The mating of Inca Legacy with Storm Cat produced multiple stakes winner Catinca, who captured the Ruffian (gr. I) and the Shuvee (gr. II) Handicaps.
More recently, Marylou purchased Dear Birdie, whose first three dams were bred by the Whitney family and whose grandsire is none other than Northern Dancer. Dear Birdie garnered Marylou the Ogden Phipps Award as top breeder by the New York Turf Writers Association in 2004 for her success with Bird Town and Birdstone. Bird Town was Dear Birdie’s eighth named foal and the multiple grade I winner made her family proud on her way to becoming the 2003 Eclipse Award winner as champion 3-year-old filly.
Birdstone (Dear Birdie’s ninth named foal) was a grade I winner at 2 and 3 and is one of only two horses to sweep the Champagne, Belmont, and Travers (all gr. I) Stakes. Until a few weeks ago, Birdstone was mostly known for spoiling Smarty Jones’ bid for the elusive Triple Crown by defeating him in the 2004 Belmont Stakes. That was until Birdstone’s son Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) by 63?4 lengths (the largest winning margin since Assault in 1946), and then ran a noble second in the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Beyond their direct contributions to the improvement of the breed, Marylou and her husband, John Hendrickson, have demonstrated an unparalleled level of generosity and support to countless racing programs and charitable initiatives. Among these are a range of contributions, from donations for the funding of the Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson Cancer Facility for Women at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center to hosting weekly dinners and entertainment for backstretch workers and their families at her beloved Saratoga during the summer race meeting.
This Triple Crown season has been a blessing for racing in many ways. We have had remarkable story lines for the media, with not one but two horses jumping to national prominence, and a gentleman jockey that has won the hearts and minds of sports fans around the country. Yet, when it appeared that some racing interests might conspire to keep Rachel Alexandra from competing against the Derby winner in the Preakness, Marylou once again stood up for the best interests of racing by declaring that she would withdraw her horse, Luv Gov, from the field if it were necessary to secure a starting birth for Rachel Alexandra.
Immediately After Mine That Bird’s impressive Derby victory, I had the opportunity to visit with Marylou and John. It was a great moment to share with them as they were able to witness first-hand the culmination of their efforts to resurrect the Whitney breeding program. Marylou described it as the “greatest moment of her life.”
Racing is a game where the best of efforts and intentions do not always result in success. In this case, it was an honor to see one who has given so much to the sport be so appropriately rewarded for a lifetime of dedication.
Antony Beck, whose family owns Gainesway Farm near Lexingon, serves as a Trustee of Blood-Horse Publications.