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Marylou Whitney: The driving force behind Saratoga

By Dick Powell

There’s an old joke and it goes like this: A horseplayer from New York City gets up early every August morning, catches a bus and takes the three-hour ride to Saratoga. After the races, he comes home. The next day, and the next day, and the next day, he does the same thing. One of his friends asks him, “Why don’t you just stay up there.”

The horseplayer responds incredulously, “What, and leave my family?”

Saratoga, the town and racetrack, have had a big place in American culture and sports. Go back and watch all the moves that were filmed here. “Saratoga” with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow captured how the town and racetrack intertwined to make it one of America’s premier destination points. “A Slight Case of Murder” was filmed here in 1938. The comedy starred Edward G. Robinson and was co-written by Damon Runyon and is worth watching for scenes of how Saratoga used to be. Casinos with a thousand rooms were on Broadway and business could not have been better.

World War II came and soon there was a movement in U.S. Congress to crack down on casinos around the country. The two main targets were Saratoga Springs, New York, and Hot Springs, Arkansas. You see, it was the casinos in these two racetrack towns that were the real driving force – racing in the afternoon followed by casinos at night. It worked for years but the Federal government was now making it impossible. The major international casinos were in Havana, Cuba, but when their rulers were overthrown in the Castro-led revolution, business migrated to a spot in the southwest desert named Las Vegas instead of up here.

It is hard to believe today but there was more than a decade when the New York Racing Association (NYRA) was wondering what to do with Saratoga. That business paled in comparison to their two downstate tracks – Aqueduct and Belmont Park. The drop in business when they moved to Saratoga in August, plus the expense of doing so, put Saratoga squarely on the radar of the bean counters who felt that NYRA would be better off if they raced downstate 52 weeks a year. There was even a compromise floated about running lesser horses at a Saratoga meet while either Aqueduct or Belmont Park was being run.

In this context, along came Marylou Whitney, who passed away at the age of 93 on Friday at her beloved Cady Hill Estate in Saratoga Springs. At that time, and recently married to Cornelius “Sonny” Whitney, she fell in love with the small town and its racing. The town was nothing like it is today, with some Broadway businesses boarded up. If you took a timeline of Saratoga from 1863 to 2019, the 1960s were the nadir. It needed some spark and energy and, with Sonny’s encouragement, Marylou began to work her magic.

Marylou Whitney was a one-person chamber of commerce that extolled the virtues of the town of Saratoga Springs throughout the world. She would sing its praise to all she came across and then, when people visited, she delivered on its greatness. She helped found the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which attracts world-class musical acts and is the summer home of the New York City Ballet. The National Museum of Dance is in another part of Saratoga State Park and she helped start that.

Every year she hosted the Whitney Gala at the historic Canfield Casino and, while it was invitation only, she would stop on her way in and talk to all her fans who would gather each year. The town is filled with locals who not only met her but would be remembered the next time Marylou would see them.

Rich beyond imagination, she was as real and down-to-earth as anyone in that society or any other society.

Saratoga racing began to regain its footing and final proof was in 1973 when Secretariat was upset by Onion in the Whitney Handicap (G1). It was announced that the winner of the Triple Crown would not show up for the Travers Stakes (G1) but a huge crowd showed up anyway. The race took precedence over the first winner of the Triple Crown in 25 years, proving that Saratoga was back and its ascent continues.

I have lived here since 1984 meaning that more than half my life has been spent here. Wear a Saratoga tee shirt on any airplane going anywhere and it is odds-on that someone will have a comment for you walking down the aisle. For a town that has less than 30,000 people living in it, we have world-class food all year, a spectacular YMCA which Marylou and husband John Hendrickson donated the pool, and entertainment options where people come from all over the state to attend the Performing Arts Center. Medical services have been improved with the money that Marylou and John have contributed to Saratoga Hospital over the years. Top physicians are willing to work here since they have state-of-the-art equipment and their families have a quality of life not found in many other places.

Upstate New York has lost almost a million people in the last decade. But, Saratoga County is one of the few in the state that shows population growth. It has a brand that is world-wide and continues to grow.

And, it would not be an exaggeration that the single, biggest driving force behind it was Marylou Whitney.

May she rest in peace.

PHOTO: Marylou Whitney in Saratoga Springs, New York (c) Horsephotos.com/Kathleen O’Leary

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