Photos by Thomas Dimopoulos.
Marylou Whitney, whose philanthropic initiatives and contributions to racing earned her the nicknames "Queen of Saratoga" and "Grand Dame of Saratoga" among other honors, died Friday, July 19, at her Cady Hill home in Saratoga Springs. She was 93.
Born Marie Louise Schroeder on Dec. 24, 1925, Mrs. Whitney grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. The daughter of Harry Schroeder, an accountant who had attended law school with Harry Truman, and mother Marie Jean, Mrs. Whitney had an active childhood in which she was a member of Troop 44 of the Girl Scouts of America.
After graduating Southwest High School, she attended the University of Iowa for a time before working as an actress, appearing in movies and television shows. Her work in radio also brought her acclaim, highlighted by the show "Private Smiles" on KCKN, catering to servicemembers during World War II.
For seven decades, Whitney was among the most successful owners in thoroughbred racing. She married Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, one of the founders of the National Museum of Racing and Pan American Airlines, respectively, in 1958. Their stable embarked on a winning tradition, with Tompion capturing the Travers in 1960 and Chompion winning the Mid-Summer Derby in 1968.
The family's contributions to racing went beyond trips to the winner's circle. In the 1970s, the Whitneys helped convince the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) to keep Saratoga Race Course open as a viable part of its racing calendar at a time when wagering and attendance sagged. Their efforts and long-term vision continue to benefit racing, with the Saratoga meet attracting more than one million fans annually.
Beyond racing, the Whitneys made a huge impact in the Saratoga community, founding the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which opened in 1966 and continues to host world-class musical and dance performances to this day, helping turn Saratoga into a true summer destination for tourists.
Following C.V. Whitney's death in 1992 at age 93, Mrs. Whitney opened her own stable, which garnered industry-wide acclaim with her Eton blue and brown silks quickly becoming synonymous with racing excellence.
In 1994, Mrs. Whitney met John Hendrickson, who was working as an aide to Alaska's then-governor Wally Hickel. They married in Alaska in 1997, and the couple continued their philanthropic endeavors, serving as founding members of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and as founders of the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Kentucky.
Mrs. Whitney continued to make her mark beyond the scope of the racetrack itself, facilitating with her husband, John, the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation program to help stable workers who are away from home during NYRA's Saratoga summer meet.
In 2003, Bird Town, trained by Nick Zito, made Whitney the first woman in 80 years to own and breed a Kentucky Oaks winner when she captured the "Lillies for the Fillies." Mrs. Whitney and Zito continued to make history in 2004 when Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes, ending Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid, and then winning the Travers just before a massive rainstorm pelted Saratoga. In all, Marylou Whitney Stables earned nine graded stakes victories and campaigned more than 190 winners from 2000-2019.
As an indelible part of Saratoga's history, the Whitney legacy can be seen all over the City of Saratoga Springs, including along famed Union Avenue outside of Congress Park where in 2015 Mrs. Whitney and Mr. Hendrickson gifted a statue of Native Dancer that has become a landmark at the start of the street where the famed racetrack sits. That same year, NYRA enshrined Mrs. Whitney in the Saratoga Walk of Fame, where the most legendary trainers, jockeys and owners in the Spa's rich history are honored.
She is survived by her husband John Hendrickson and her five children, Louise "M'Lou," Frank "Hobbs," Henry "Hank," Heather and Cornelia.
◆ With love and gratitude for your inner light of love and compassion, which you used to illuminate those whom others did not see, and a city so quiet it seemed forgotten. You used your talents and your means to lift those around you, those not in position to ever return the favor, but whose gratitude lives on and keeps your light shining with their smiles, their lives forever changed because of you.
- Your friends at the NY Race Chaplaincy
◆ "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. 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. Saratoga would not be the destination it is today without the esteemed leadership, dedication and support of Marylou.
- NYRA CEO & President Dave O'Rourke
◆ 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 kind-hearted 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.
- Statement from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on the passing of Marylou Whitney.
She is one of 16 new members scheduled to be inducted in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs on Aug. 2.
◆ Through her extraordinary commitment to Saratoga Hospital, Marylou Whitney has had an immeasurable impact on our community. Marylou’s grace, kindness and generosity, and her ability to inspire others to join her in supporting Saratoga Hospital, have touched almost every aspect of the care we provide to our patients. And for that we will be forever grateful. We offer our deepest, heartfelt condolences to her husband, John Hendrickson, and to Marylou’s family, and hope she has found peace.
- Saratoga Hospital President and CEO Angelo Calbone
◆ Marylou Whitney was one of the brightest lights I have ever known, a person beloved and treasured in every corner of our community. She carried a spark of wonder and a youthful energy that made her delightful to be around, and her loving spirit filled the hearts and lives of all she encountered. Her generosity toward others was larger than life—more than once I saw her stop what she was doing to reach out and lift someone up, young and old alike. She did this whether or not anyone was watching, and her boundless philanthropy made the many tapestries of our region richer and more complete. My heart aches to know that her time on this Earth has ended, but I give my greatest thanks for the gift of her life and our many years of friendship. My heartfelt condolences to John, to her family and friends, and to all who knew and loved her. She will be dearly missed.
- U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko
◆ The National Museum of Dance is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our beloved founder Marylou Whitney, whose vision and spirit have guided us throughout our history. Her extraordinary legacy will continue to live on at the National Museum of Dance. We extend our deepest condolences to Marylou’s husband John Hendrickson and to her entire family.
- National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs