The Whitney Handicap: a look at a treasured American family

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

Saratoga will run the 81st edition of the Whitney Handicap on Saturday, a race named for a family that has meant much to the sport of Thoroughbred horseracing.  The Whitney name has been a fabric of this country for over 300 years through service, philanthropic acts and their sportsmanship.

William Collins Whitney was born July 5, 1841 in Conway, Massachusetts, the son of General James S. Whitney (b. May 19, 1811) and Laurinda Collins (b. July 6, 1810) Whitney.  James worked in his father’s store and then in his own store until he enlisted in the Massachusetts Militia.  The young Whitney became a Brigadier General at the age of 24.  His new career path would lead to several other jobs:  Sheriff, Insurance Company President, and State Representative.  In 1854, just as his descendants would do, he went to Washington to work as an appointee of President Franklin Pierce to run the Washington armory.

General Whitney would make his way back to Massachusetts and become President of  Boston Water Power Company and the Metropolitan Steamship Company.  He was heavily involved with the Democratic Party just as his son, Williams Collins would.  

In 1878 the General was presiding over the state Democratic convention in Boston to nominate Josiah G. Abbott for governor.  During the day, Whitney found that two of his acquaintances there for the convention, had taken ill and died.  Whitney decided to journey home instead of attending the convention.  

His life would not last the ride home.  The driver stopped at a store to find help.  Before the help could arrive, the 68-year-old Whitney patriarch, known for his courteous, dignified manner and his kind heart wore out.

He left behind his wife Laurinda and their daughters Mary Ann (b.9/16/1837); Susan (b.3/27/1845); Henrietta; (b.4/6/1847); and Laurinda (b.7/4/1852).

His sons Henry Melville  (b.10/22/1839); and William Collins.  Another son preceded him in death in infancy.

The Racing Patriarch

William Collins Whitney graduated from Williston Seminary and went to Yale in 1859. Harvard was his next stop where he would earn his law degree in 1865.  He married Flora Payne (b.1/25/1842) from Cleveland, Ohio October 20, 1869.  

Flora was the daughter of a politician, an unfulfilled presidential candidate, Henry B. Payne.  She was educated in America and abroad.  She studied science and while in Europe reported back to her father.  So enamored was he of her reports, he had them printed into a book.  Flora was a very skilled social leader which would help her later in Washington when her husband served a “bachelor” president.

Flora’s brother Oliver Hazard Payne was an organizer of American Tobacco Trust.  He sold his oil interests to Standard Oil and became a trustee for that company.  He was also involved with the founding of U.S. Steel.  Oliver would never marry and Flora’s family would be his closest kin throughout his life.  He would exert his position and his wealth to manipulate them in their young adult lives with an ultimatum after their mother’s death.

Flora and W.C. produced five children with one not living to adulthood.  Harry Payne Whitney (b.4/29/1872); Pauline Payne Whitney (b.3/21/1874); William Payne Whitney (b.3/21/1876); Olive Whitney (b. 1878 d. 1883); Dorothy Payne Whitney (b. 1/23/87)

When Flora produced her first child, Harry Payne, her father and the baby’s namesake, presented her with a sum of  $1,000,000.

W.C. Whitney developed a taste for politics, just like his father.  Those desires would take him through some extraordinary times for his country.  

As an attorney, William Collins Whitney was known for his loyalty to his client and his determination to get them a favorable result.  In fact, his diligence to do the job at hand and his intelligence would carry him through many of his undertakings.  Including thoroughbred horse racing.

In an 1874 speech at a reception for New York’s Governor Samuel Tilden, William C. Whitney stood before the crowd at the Young Men’s Democratic Club and spoke about the state of an inflated money policy a subject just as fresh today in 2008, as it was then.

“It is always easier to pay with a promise than to pay down ready cash.  History shows what the fruit of such policy is and must be.   This was one road:  before us lay an easy path of apparent prosperity, plenty of money and good times generally.” and

“The other path was one of struggle and difficulty, the narrow and thorny path, if you please of economy and taxes, of the payment of the national debt and the setting of the country as soon as might be on firm, sound basis.  When we departed from the path of virtue we were bound to lead the life of a spendthrift.  This we did, and the day of reckoning has now come.  Our building, firm and substantial though it appeared was built upon a bed of sand.  With the pinch of taxation came slack work.  Other people saw through their burdens many things done by officials which were not in the line of their public duties.”

In 1875 W.C. Whitney was appointed counsel to the corporation (New York City) by Governor Tilden.  This made him the checkpoint between the city government and the monetary claims that were mounting through fraudulent means.  This job would pit him against the Tweed gang and Tammany Hall.  Against the longstanding powerful group the new governor and Whitney had some successes.  

Whitney came in to the job facing 3,800 claims against the city, amounting to around $20,000,000.  In the next two years, he would dispense of these claims at a rate twice that done by his predecessors and he was saving the city’s money by exposing the fraud.  

Whitney took a multi-million dollar demand for payment of stationary and when arrest warrants were proffered, he settled up with them for a more reasonable $50,000.  He would have many other successes like this during his tenure.

In 1882 he left the city job and went into national politics.  

He became President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy in 1885.  Whitney had the foresight to know that we needed to build our navy in the event of future conflicts should we need to defend our country by sea.  He also thought we needed to build a better vessel with armor plating.  He felt that the work must stay within the confines of the United States and the work order not sent abroad.  When he went looking for those companies that might exact his desire, he was told they were not equipped for the kind of shipbuilding he needed.  His only option was to go outside the country.  

W.C. Whitney was not one to give up.  Congress allotted $4,000,000 to  entice companies like Bethlehem Iron to expand into this kind of armored steel work.  The plan worked.

Family Loss

Whitney’s wife  Flora, died in 1893.  And after three years he remarried, a young widow, Mrs. Edith A. Randolph.  

Flora’s brother Oliver Payne did not like the union and felt that not enough time had passed before W.C. “took up” with Mrs. Randolph.  The widow was rumored to be similarly attached to a married J.P. Morgan.   

Payne admonished Whitney for the lack of respect he felt for his sister and Uncle Oliver told Flora’s children that they must choose sides or be cut out of his substantial will, one that would be greater than their father’s.  A future filled with poverty would not be something they faced regardless of where  their loyalties fell.   

The younger son, William Payne, would drop William from his name and go by his middle name Payne throughout his life and his sister Pauline joined in his loyalty to their Uncle Oliver.  

Harry Payne and his sister Dorothy would still remain close to the uncle, but remain with their father and although no one was actually ever written out of wills, Payne did benefit more than the others after Oliver’s death.  Harry Payne Whitney would see his inheritance much earlier and his loyalty to his father was rewarded with a larger portion.  This act might have been his right simply by birth order as the eldest son and not due to any perceived allegiance.

Although W.C. did not race thoroughbreds in 1894, he was one of the founders of the Jockey Club with English born James R. Keene’s urging.  With his work and the death of his first wife , the rift with Flora’s brother bearing down on him, racing became an escape and he grabbed for both reigns.  In 1898 he dove into thoroughbred racing and shortly thereafter had a stable of 55 thoroughbreds.

Whitney hired Samuel Hildreth as his trainer.  He acquired the advisory services of the very wise John E. Madden.  Both Hildreth and Madden were future Hall of Fame trainers, inducted posthumously, Hildreth in 1955 and Madden in 1983.

Tragedy struck again for W.C. in 1898 when Mrs. W.C. Whitney out for a horseback ride on their Aiken, South Carolina property, she struck her head fracturing her vertebrae and landing her in a coma.  When she regained consciousness she was without use of her arms.  She struggled for months before finally succumbing to the injuries at the age of 41.

Whitney devoted himself to his new venture, but with a heavy heart he wouldn’t have much time either.  His first horses ran in the name of his son-in-law, Sydney Paget and wore those silks.  In 1899 Jean Beraud won the Belmont Stakes and the Withers Stakes under Paget’s name.

When Whitney put his own name on his stable, he knew the silks he wanted.  They were George Lambton’s English silks, the Eton blue with brown.  Lambton sold the silks to the American and those colors are still used today by his grandson’s wife, Marylou Whitney.  

By 1901, just three years into the sport, Whitney led the owners in national earnings.  He ventured abroad for success and leased the three-year-old colt Volodyovski after the death of his prior lessor.  He proceeded to win the Epsom Derby which added another $102,569 to Whitney’s U.S. earnings of  $108,440.  He would top the list again in 1903.

Saratoga on the brink

Saratoga Racetrack hit a rough patch before the turn of the century and Mr. Whitney felt his negotiation abilities were needed.  He was going to clean up Saratoga and return it to the well-heeled society that it was meant to serve.  

The track opened in 1864 and the Travers Stakes, a mid-summer Derby,   was contested there.  In the more recent years, the track became prey to a group that author Edith Wharton might refer to as a lesser social class.  These were the gamblers, fixers, drinkers, etc.  

Whitney and friends managed to negotiate the cleaning out of  the pool halls and bars and by 1901 they managed to bring back the exclusivity and refinement the track was known for and reinstituted the Travers, which hadn’t run consistently since 1895.  The Saratoga Special, Grand Union Hotel Stakes, and the Saratoga Handicap were run in 1901.  The Albany Stakes, (later called The Hopeful), a futurity, was set in motion for a 1903 run.

Unfortunately, just as Whitney was gaining success in the sport, he would pass away in early 1904 at the age of 63.  He would not live to see his spectacular two-year-old fillies.   Tanya won the Hopeful Stakes in 1904 while Artful won the Futurity at Belmont Park and set an American record of 1:08 for the six furlongs at Morris Park while carrying 130 pounds.  The record stood for fifty years.  

Tanya also won the Spinaway Stakes.  They ran in the name of Herman B. Duryea who leased several of Mr. Whitney’s runners after his death.

Harry Payne Whitney

Luckily for the sport the father’s short love affair with the turf turned into a lifelong love for his sons and their families.

When his father’s stock went on the auction block in October of 1904, Harry Payne Whitney was ready to re-attain his father’s horses.  The eldest son  married into another racing family with his 1896 wedding to the sculptress, Gertrude Vanderbilt.  

Harry purchased the stallion Hamburg for $70,000.  He purchased another stallion and 16 distaffers for $183,900.  The sixteen included Tanya and Artful.  

In Harry Payne’s name, Artful would go on to win three more races in her three-year-old campaign before being retired.  Tanya would take the stable to new heights when she became the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes.  One hundred and one years later, she was still the only one to have done it.  

In 2007, a chestnut filly would duplicate Tanya’s win in the Belmont Stakes.  Rags to Riches  who traces back to Payne Whitney’s Greentree Stallion Tom Fool,  Harry Payne Whitney’s Whisk Broom and his Alabama Stakes winner Vexatious and Traffic Court, the 1954 Broodmare of the year for C.V. Whitney.  

Artful would be honored with admission into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.  

In 1905, Harry Payne Whitney would surprass his father’s earnings with a total of $170,447.  It would take him until 1913 to regain the national title, but he would repeat the effort in 1920, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1929.  His son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney would take the title the next four years.

In addition to C.V. Whitney (b.2/20/1899) Harry and Gertrude would have two daughters Flora Payne (b.7/29/1897) and Barbara (b.3/20/1903)

In 1906 Harry Payne Whitney’s Burgomaster, a son of Hamburg, won the Belmont Stakes to give Whitney back to back wins in the endurance test.  

Throughout the years Harry Payne Whitney would win the Belmont with Prince Eugene (1913); and Luke McLuke (1914)

The Preakness Stakes with Royal Tourist (1908); Broomspun (1921);  Bostonian (1927); and Victorian (1928).

Harry Payne Whitney would give us our first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, Regret, in 1915 after beating the colts in the Saratoga Special, Sanford and Hopeful Stakes as a two-year-old.  Col. Matt Winn claimed that this was the race that made the Kentucky Derby a national event.  

Regret’s win in the Derby would not be reproduced until Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988.  

Winning Colors traces back to Whitney stallions Peter Pan on her top side and Hamburg on the bottom and Genuine Risk has Hamburg on the bottom side and the Whitney purchased stallion Mahmoud on the top.  Regret’s broodmare sire was the Whitney stallion Hamburg.
In 1927 Harry Payne Whitney again won the Derby with a colt, Whiskery.

Harry Payne Whitney received Horse of the Year honors for Regret (1905); Burgomaster (1906); Whisk Broom II (1913); and Johren (1918).

Saratoga honored the Whitney family in 1928 with a race named in their honor, the Whitney Handicap.  First run at a mile and a quarter but reduced to a mile and an eighth in 1955.  It would take only three years for a Whitney owned horse to win the race.  Harry Payne Whitney’s Whichone took the 1930 edition.  

Harry Payne Whitney passed away October 26, 1930

Like Father, Like Son

C.V. “Sonny” Whitney was the only son born to Harry Payne and Gertrude Vanderbilt.  The Vanderbilt-Whitney home was also where Gloria Vanderbilt would live after her father’s death and the sensational trial that declared her mother incompetent to care for her.

Sonny Whitney had a wide range of activities.  He was a movie producer footing a hefty portion of the cost to produce Gone With The Wind along with his cousin John Hay Whitney.  He also produced three other movies with his own production company, including John Ford’s The Searchers.  

He was a director of Guaranty Trust Company of New York and served on their board until 1940.  He served in the Air Force during World War II.  He also served in President Truman’s administration.  

In 1927 Mr. Whitney joined with William A. Rockefeller and others to back the new Pan American World Airways.

In 1931 Whitney founded the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company in Canada.  He served as their Chairman until 1964.

An avid sportsman, he followed in his father’s footsteps, playing polo, taking home three U.S. Open titles.  He was now a third-generation thoroughbred horse breeder and owner.  

He had four wives and five children.  None more involved in horse racing  than his last wife, Marylou Whitney Hendrickson.

The enchanting blonde actress from Missouri, once married to the heir to the John Deere fortune, formed her own racing stable after Sonny’s death in 1992.  She has won the Belmont and Travers Stakes with her homebred colt, Birdstone and bred a half-sister to him named Bird Town won the Kentucky Oaks.

Birdstone’s 2004 Belmont Stakes Victory over Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones

The Whitney Farm, that is now part of Gainesway Farms, is said to have seen more than 400 stakes winners graze the hallowed 1,000 acres of Kentucky bluegrass.

Sonny Whitney raced Equipoise, bred by his father.  The colt started 51 times, winning 29 of those starts and placing in another 10 while earning $338,610.  He set a world record at Arlington Park going a mile in 1:34 2/5.  He has a race named in his honor run at the Chicago area track each year.  

Equipoise was voted horse of the year in 1932 and 1933 and champion handicap horse in 1932, 1933, 1934.  Nicknamed The Chocolate Soldier, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957 and sired 1942 Kentucky Derby winner Shut Out owned by Payne Whitney’s heirs, Greentree Stable.

Counterpoint was another champion for C.V. Whitney, in 1951 he was named Horse of the Year.

Phalanx won the Belmont Stakes in 1947 and Counterpoint took the race in 1951.  

Payne Whitney

Payne Whitney and his wife Helen Hay Whitney formed Greentree Stable
Helen ran the operation for the most part concentrating on steeplechasers while Payne worked on business affairs.  After the death of his uncle Oliver Payne in 1917 and a $63,000,000 inheritance he took more interest in the stable.

When Payne passed away in 1927 his son John Hay “Jock” Whitney and his daughter Joan Whitney Payson stepped in to run the stable along with their mother Helen.  The stable carried the pink and black silks of a dress their mother Helen fashioned them after.

In 1927 Greentree Stable’s future hall-of-famer Jolly Roger won the Grand National Steeplechase and their two-year-old filly Glade won the Matron Stakes and Pimlico Futurity.   

They won the Kentucky Derby with Twenty Grand in 1931 and again in 1942 with Shut Out.

They added a Preakness Stakes with Capot in 1949.

Greentree would earn four more classic wins in the Belmont Stakes with Twenty Grand (1931); Shut Out (1942); Capot (1949); and Stage Door Johnny (1968)

Greentree Stable’s Shut Out wins the 1942 Derby

Three times the Greentree stable won two of the three legs of a triple crown with the same runner.

Greentree won England’s Cheltemham Gold Cup twice in 1929 and 1930 with Easter Hero

They campaigned Devil Diver to a career with 47 starts, 22 wins and 12 places for $261,064.  He won the Hopeful Stakes, Breeders’ Futurity, Sanford Stakes, Phoenix     Stakes, Toboggan (2), Brooklyn and Metropolitan (2) Handicaps, American Legion Handicap, Whitney Handicap, Paumonok, and Suburban Handicap.  He carried weights of 132, 134 and 136.  he was named champion handicap horse of  1943 and 1944.  He is also the broodmare sire of the great California racehorse Native Diver.  He was inducted into National Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1980 joining his grandson who was elected in 1978.    

Greentree’s Tom Fool raced 30 times with 21 wins and seven seconds for $570,169.  He won the Sanford Stakes, Grand Union, The Futurity, Grey Lag, Empire City, Jerome Handicap, Metropolitan, Suburban, Brooklyn Handicaps, Carter Handicap.  He was only the second horse to win the New York Handicap Triple Crown.  He won all of his ten starts in his four-year-old campaign.  He was named champion two-year-old in 1952, champion handicap  horse, Horse of the Year and champion sprinter in 1953.  He is the sire of  Buckpasser and Kentucky Derby winner Tim-Tam

The Whitney Stakes

The first 80 runnings of the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga saw Sonny Whitney win the race four times while his cousin’s Greentree Stable won the race six times.  Harry Payne Whitney took the 1930 renewal.  
Victories in the Whitney Handicap:
Silver Buck, C.V. Whitney 1982
State Dinner, C.V. Whitney 1980
Cahoes, Greentree Stable 1958
Tom Fool, Greentree Stable 1953
Counterpoint, C.V. Whitney 1952
One Hitter, Greentree Stable 1951
Devil Diver, Greentree Stable 1944
Swing and Sway, Greentree Stable 1942
Equipoise, C.V. Whitney 1932
St. Brideaux, Greentree Stable 1931
Whichone, Harry Payne Whitney 1930

Saturday’s Race

When they send off the eleven starters in the Whitney Handicap on Saturday, each of them will carry the blood of a Whitney bred or owned ancestor.  Tom Fool, Hamburg, Whisk Broom, Whisk Along, Peter Pan, Mother Goose, Flying Witch, Equipoise, Pennant, Broomstick, Ben Brush, Diavolo and others.

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