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The 89th running of The Whitney at Saratoga Race Course brings the best of older Thoroughbred horses to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The iconic racetrack has seen a lot of history in its 153 years. And each August it continues to make history with two Grade I Stakes with purses this year of $1.25 million each — The Whitney and The Travers. An annual pilgrimage to “The Spa” is always on my summer calendar. Besides seeing the beautiful horses, I especially like walking down parts of the old track built in 1863 by John Morrissey who held the first races there.
Last year you may recall The Travers featured the newly minted Triple Crown Champion American Pharoah. And the race did not disappoint. Coming down the stretch AP had the lead when Frosted, the gray colt pulled ahead briefly before AP surged ahead again. The win was within reach for AP when out of nowhere from the outside Keen Ice pulled ahead of both of them just in time for the finish line. It was AP’s only defeat in a stellar year that wrapped up for him by winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors.
The Whitney Race
This year’s Whitney became a “Win and You’re In” race, which means the winner gets an automatic entry into the famed Breeder’s Cup Classic race. The six-horse field for the 11/8 -mile race on August 6 was small. Among them was Frosted, now a 4-year-old coming off a stellar win in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on June 11. There, he not only won the “Met Mile” by a race record-setting 14½ lengths, but qualified for the Dirt Mile at the Breeder’s Cup held at Santa Anita (Calif.) Racecourse this November.
Joining Frosted were Effinex, who placed second to AP in last year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic, Noble Bird, Upstart, Comfort and El Kabeir. But before the race went off there were a few ceremonies in the winners circle, including a 90th birthday celebration for Marylou Whitney. I watched on the jumbotron from the rail as a pink cake was cut and a long-stemmed pink tea rose bouquet, no doubt made from Marylou Whitney Roses, were presented to the “Queen of Saratoga,” an affectionate moniker.
Then it was post time. And they’re off… Frosted broke clean and took the lead early and never gave it up. He easily won two-and-half lengths ahead of Comfort. Other notable Whitney winners include: the stunning upset of the Triple Crown Winner Secretariat in 1973 by the unknown Onion; Alydar, who came in second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races, in 1978; and War Admiral, the horse famously defeated by Sea Biscuit in a match race, who won in 1938.
The Whitney Family
But which Whitney is the race named after? Not Marylou as many might think. In order to follow the pedigree, you have to follow three generations of Whitneys from the early days of the Saratoga Race Course.
It all began with the family patriarch, William Collins Whitney, a New York lawyer and investor who served as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy. He got involved in breeding and racing Thoroughbreds in the 1890s and was one of the founders of The Jockey Club. After the race course hit hard times and race-fixing scandals, it was closed. W.C. Whitney formed the Saratoga Association that purchased the Saratoga Race Course from the failed owner and bookmaker Gottfried Walbaum in 1900.
Together the elder Whitney and his son Harry Payne Whitney invested in the track, upgraded the venue, and opened for racing in 1902. In 1904, Harry Payne Whitney purchased the family racing stable after his father’s death. He was married to Gertrude Vanderbilt, who had her own fortune from her great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad magnate. Meanwhile, Harry’s brother, William Payne Whitney, known as Payne, and his wife Helen Hay Whitney, formed Greentree Stables in 1914 adjacent to the Saratoga track.
When Payne died unexpectedly at age 51 in 1927, the family thought it fitting to have a race named in his honor. In 1928 the first race was held. According to thoroughbredracing.com, the inaugural running was won by the 5-year-old mare Black Maria, who defeated three males, including Harry Payne Whitney’s 1927 Kentucky Derby winner Whiskery, and earned $6,500. The 1929 Whitney was won by another female, Bateau. Harry Payne Whitney’s 3-year-old Whichone captured the 1930 running of the Whitney a few days before he and Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox were defeated by 100-to-1 long shot Jim Dandy in the Travers.
When Harry died in 1930, his son Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, who had not been involved in racing, took over the family farm. Marylou married Sonny in 1958. When he died in 1992, Sonny had already dispersed his breeding stock. As a widow, Marylou worked hard to purchase back Whitney broodmares and started her own Marylou Whitney Stables. Her most famous moment in racing may be the 2004 Belmont Stakes win of her colt Birdstone, who denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown that year. I remember her being even apologetic on TV that her horse won the race as the whole nation was hoping for a Triple Crown winner after Funny Cide was similarly denied the Triple Crown at Belmont the year before.
A fitting ending to The Whitney was when Marylou Whitney was on hand in the winner’s circle to present trophies to Frosted’s owners, Godolphin Stable, trainer Kiaran P. McLaughlin, and jockey Joel Rosario, and their various connections. Saratoga — The August Place to Be.
Lisa Peterson — lifelong equestrian, dog show judge and award-winning podcaster, communications professional and journalist — writes about horses, hounds and history at lisaunleashed.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.