At the Track, the Betting's On the Queen of Saratoga

Marylou Whitney with her husband, John Hendrickson, 39 years her junior, at a 1998 fundraiser in Washington at the National Building Museum.
Marylou Whitney with her husband, John Hendrickson, 39 years her junior, at a 1998 fundraiser in Washington at the National Building Museum. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Leonard Shapiro and Vicky Moon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Minutes after Invasor, an impeccably bred 4-year-old owned by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai, won the $750,000 Whitney Handicap by a nose here Saturday, a sleek silver Mercedes edged down the dirt track. It glided to a standstill several yards from the winner's circle in front of the stately wooden grandstand at Saratoga Race Course, a storied racing venue that traces its roots to 1863.

When the sedan's back door opened, photographers and television cameramen jostled for position. The 80-year-old Marylou Whitney emerged gingerly. She wore a pink silk dress with matching coat, a signature wide-brimmed pink hat, three strands of pearls, and white Keds sneakers. Her 41-year-old husband, John Hendrickson, clutched her on one side, and her longtime friend, Albany public relations man Ed Lewi, propped up the other.

The so-called "Queen of Saratoga" was making a grand, if somewhat wobbly, entrance back into the spotlight to present the trophy to the 79th winner of one of racing's most coveted prizes.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Saratoga's beloved Marylou suffered what's been described as a mild stroke that weakened her right side. On July 1, she and her husband reluctantly announced the cancellation of her lavish annual gala for 300 of her closest friends. Staged since 1960 at Canfield Casino in Congress Park on the night before the running of the Whitney Handicap, the gala became the marquee evening of the summer social season.

"She's a very proud woman," Lewi said last week before Whitney's first public appearance at the racetrack since her stroke. "She's bound and determined to get better. She doesn't want to come to the parties in a wheelchair."

Whitney reportedly is still undergoing about five hours of daily physical therapy, and several friends said she's expected to make a full recovery. They also say Whitney has continued to financially support her favorite causes around town, even if she has been unable to sit in her box at the track or attend any of the countless benefits and parties scheduled throughout Saratoga's 36-day racing meet. Whitney and her husband declined a request to be interviewed for this article.

"Marylou is great at marketing the town," said Saratoga resident Bob Giordan, who works as a greeter at the racetrack. "She comes from a long line of women of a certain social order because of what they do for the hospital or horse racing."

The fourth wife of the late Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, she's been involved with all things Saratoga ever since she arrived in 1958 in this Upstate New York spa, which has been famous for its mineral water baths since the Revolutionary War. Whitney has been a fixture at the racetrack and a star of the August social swirl, a passionate and popular philanthropist who has championed countless local causes.

"She's been instrumental in making Saratoga well known throughout the country," said Linda Toohey, a close friend and former publisher of the town's newspaper, the Saratogian, who now works part time at the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. "When you combine her flair for having fabulous parties and the donations of millions in funds for local charities, it's a win-win for everyone."

In the mid-1980s, Toohey recalled, Sonny Whitney asked Marylou what she wanted for her birthday. She told him she was tired of seeing her guests at their ball perspiring profusely because Canfield Casino -- an opulent onetime gambling emporium built in 1870 -- had no air conditioning. She told him the best gift would be to install a cooling system in the facility.

"Not only did it make it more pleasant for her guests, but now everyone in the community is grateful for that generosity," Toohey said. "They probably have 50 fundraising events in the casino over the summer. There's a museum in there, and they have another 50 weddings. It's a very public building, and the air conditioning made all of it possible."

Sonny Whitney, who died in 1992 at age 93, had money and blue blood on both sides of his family. His interest in horses included a string of polo ponies and a stable filled with fine thoroughbreds, hunters and steeplechase racers. Chairman of the board of the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co. and a founder of Pan American World Airways, he owned a horse farm in Kentucky, a hacienda in Mexico, a lodge in the Adirondacks and a 135-acre estate on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs called Cady Hill.

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