Posted: Sept. 10, 2019
The tributes to the late Marylou Whitney will continue for years to come, and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association added the thanks and appreciation of the owners, trainers and backstretch community by honoring the “Queen of Saratoga” with the 2019 NYTHA EquiStar Award.
The EquiStar Award was created by the NYTHA in 2016 to recognize an individual or organization that, through compassion, hard work and generosity, have enriched the New York Thoroughbred industry.
Marylou Whitney, a native of Kansas City, Mo., was born on Christmas Eve and celebrated life as if every day was a holiday. She added to the Whitney family’s horseracing legacy, breeding and racing the likes of champion Bird Town and Belmont and Travers Stakes winner Birdstone, and received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2010.
The contributions made by Marylou and her husband, John Hendrickson, are legion, supporting organizations as diverse as the Markey Cancer Center, Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital and Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington, Ky.; and the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Centennial Park, Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and Saratoga Hospital in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
But it is her dedication to the backstretch workers that hits closest to home. In 2008 Whitney and Hendrickson unveiled the Backstretch Appreciation program to show the hotwalkers, grooms, exercise riders and assistant trainers how important they are to the racing industry, and that Saratoga was the “Summer Place to Be” not just for breeders, owners and trainers, but for them as well.
Each year for the past 12 years, the program has sponsored Sunday dinners and daily events that range from English as a Second Language courses to basketball, bingo, bowling and soccer. Whitney was often there to play host.
“For Marylou, it was not just about giving, it was about sharing,” NYTHA President Joe Appelbaum said. “She understood how much the workers love the sport and the horses, and it created a bond with the backstretch that is rare. She truly embodied the spirit of the EquiStar Award.”
Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), said: “BEST has the privilege of overseeing many of the Backstretch Appreciation events. These events were like an embrace to the hundreds of backstretch workers of Saratoga. Nearly every evening of each Saratoga meet for the past 12 years, workers have been able to enjoy the best of Saratoga—delicious meals from Saratoga’s finest restaurants for up to 700 people, trips to local attractions, ESL classes, bingo and more.
“Most impressive was the fact that Marylou’s philanthropy was ‘up close and personal.’ Whenever possible, Marylou was present and had meaningful contact with backstretch workers, always leaving them charmed and many times, inspired.”
Whitney will be honored at the annual NYTHA PAC Golf Tournament at Rockville Links in Rockville Centre, N.Y., on Tuesday, Oct. 1. Hendrickson will accept the award on her behalf at a winner’s circle ceremony at Belmont Park next spring.
“Marylou considered everyone involved in racing her family,” Hendrickson said. “Her greatest moments in her life were because of racing. Thank you for giving her a wonderful life.”
(Marylou Whitney photo courtesy of NYRA/Susie Raisher)