How many Thoroughbred owners would sell their soul to win a classic race; to reach the pinnacle of the sport; to attain immortality; to see the value of their horse soar into the tens of millions?
For racing's aristocracy, the tycoons of business and pillars of society who ruled the Sport of Kings back in the early to mid-1900s, it was all about the sport and the glory and seeing horses they bred and raised carry their famed colors to victory. These moguls knew how to win, and more important, they knew how to lose.
Perhaps the last remaining link to those times and those true sportsmen was Marylou Whitney, widow of C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, son of the legendary Harry Payne Whitney and Gertrude Vanderbilt. Following her husband's death in 1992, Marylou kept the stable's powder blue silks alive by operating a boutique stable, having moderate success. She was known more as a socialite and philanthropist and for throwing flamboyant Kentucky Derby parties, which attracted celebrities from all over the world. There was no greater honor Derby Week than being invited to Marylou's party.
But beneath all the glitz and glamour was a deep love of racing, especially the horses. C.V. never won the Kentucky Derby and his last classic victory came in 1951 when Counterpoint captured the Belmont Stakes, one of only two classic wins.
And so in 2004, 51 years after Counterpoint's victory, when Marylou captured the Belmont Stakes with her homebred Birdstone, depriving Smarty Jones of the Triple Crown, one would think she would be over the moon and bursting with pride and joy having carried on the Whitney name, earning a page of her own the history books.
But this was no ordinary horse owner. To Marylou, the sport came first and took precedence over her own accomplishments. Because of that, there was no joy in Birdstone's victory. She shared in the agony suffered by the vast majority of the record 120,000 fans in attendance who came out to see their beloved Smarty Jones make history by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years, As someone who spoke to her immediately after the race, she truly was saddened by her own victory. I had never witnessed anything like that before.
In the stands, people were crying. Even the victorious Marylou was near tears, not for her victory, but for depriving Smarty his chance for immortality and for what a victory would have done for the sport.
"I feel so awful for Smarty Jones," she said while waiting for her horse to return. "We were hoping we'd be second. I love Smarty. He's done more for racing than any horse I've ever known and I apologize to everyone for beating him.”
You are never going to get quotes like that from any owner who had just won the Belmont Stakes.
Fast forward to the Travers Stakes two and a half months later. With Smarty Jones sidelined with an injury, it was all about Birdstone this time. Marylou, known as “The Queen of Saratoga,” mainly due to her efforts in restoring the historic Spa back to its glory days, had an opportunity to emulate her late husband’s success in the Travers. It had been 36 years since C.V. captured the Midsummer Derby with Chompion, a son of the Whitney-owned and bred Tompion, who had won the Travers eight years before Chompion. So, this one would be special.
And it was. Under a black canopy of clouds that had turned a sunny Adirondack afternoon into near darkness, Birdstone came charging down the Saratoga stretch to defeat The Cliff’s Edge. It was as if the clouds had been waiting for Birdstone to cross the finish line and complete his triumphant return before unleashing a deluge of Biblical proportions even for Saratoga.
Marylou, soaking wet, stood on the track feeling a sense of the ethereal, as if there was something divine about this victory.
“I think the gods came out and did this; all this lightning and thunder to sort of congratulate him,” she said, as sheets of heavy rain cascaded down in wind-blown waves. “This is a dream come true.”
When she spotted her trainer Nick Zito, who also trained the runner-up, she clasped his hands in hers and asked, “Did we just cross the English Channel?”
By now, Marylou was soaked through and through, but that didn’t stop her from leading a chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain” with husband John Hendrickson, Zito and the rest of the team.
But this was not about her. It was all about Birdstone, who proved his Belmont Stakes victory at 30-1 was no aberration. For Marylou, the race, combined with the rain, was a cleansing of sorts. Smarty Jones had become a distant memory. This time there were no apologies, no feelings of regret for having conquered such a beloved hero.
“Smarty Jones made people all over the country love and cheer for a horse,” she said. “Then when we beat him I felt awful. This time I feel wonderful and I know now (Birdstone) deserved to win the Belmont.”
This was Marylou, like her late husband a true sportsman, always gracious in victory and defeat and always a fan of the sport before anything else.
That is why it was disturbing in 2009 when her name was brought into the controversy surrounding Rachel Alexandra and the plot between two owners to keep the filly from running in the Preakness Stakes.
Rachel Alexandra, who had won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths, was a late Triple Crown nominee and would therefore be unable to race in the Preakness if 14 previously nominated horses were entered. With a field of 12 likely, two owners who had prominent horses coming out of the Kentucky Derby conspired to each enter a second horse, which would keep Rachel Alexandra out of the race. One of the owners, admittedly through hearsay, mentioned Marylou Whitney as another owner who wanted to prevent Rachel from running. This infuriated Marylou, as it went against everything she stood for. It was Marylou's filly Stone Legacy, a daughter of Birdstone, who finished a distant second in the Kentucky Oaks, so she had great admiration for Rachel, just as she did Smarty Jones.
Marylou’s trainer D. Wayne Lukas had persuaded her to run her colt Luv Gov in the second leg of the Triple Crown. With her name thrown into the controversy, Marylou announced that she would withdraw Luv Gov if it meant excluding Rachel Alexandra.
Hendrickson said of the decision, “It’s important for people to know that if we are the deciding factor that would exclude Rachel Alexandra we will withdraw, period. We’re not going to hurt the sport; we love the sport. Marylou has been in it for 50 years; she’s not going to do this to the sport she loves. When I asked her this morning if she’d like to go to the Preakness with Luv Gov she got excited. We legitimately thought we had a shot. If people want to play these games they can, but for the sake of the sport we definitely will withdraw in order to have Rachel run. She is a star and we’re craving for stars.”
Both owners backed out of their plan and Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years.
One need only read the numerous obituaries on Marylou to learn everything she did for the sport and its workers and for Saratoga through her many philanthropic endeavors.
She was the last of a dying breed of horse owner, and with her went the end of an era when racing was truly the Sport of Kings … and Queens.