Saratoga County

Saratoga Weekend: Whitney, Hendrickson turn attention to backstretch workers

Marylou Whitney's summer gala was a hard ticket to come by in years past, but her weekly bingo game

Marylou Whitney’s summer gala was a hard ticket to come by in years past, but her weekly bingo game during the summer meet caters to an even more exclusive club.

As part of the effort by Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, to recognize the role of the backstretch workers at the Saratoga Race Course, the 87-year-old philanthropist and local socialite can often be found hobknobbing with workers participating in 40 nights of backstretch events.

The busy calendar runs concurrently with the meet, but without any dark days, and includes a casino night, Latin dance night, karaoke night, movie night in Spanish and games of bingo on Wednesday.

Almost all of the events are held under a large tent next to the recreational center on Union Avenue across the street from the track. Each night attracts about 300 to 400 backstretch workers, who receive a meal each night. Each night is made possible by dozens of volunteers.

Whenever her health permits it, Whitney and Hendrickson attend the events. “Every night I feel well enough I come,” said Whitney, who has battled some health concerns this summer. “If I’m able, I’m here.”

Her involvement, which is more than just her time (she funds an undisclosed number of the events and prizes awarded for bingo), stems from a desire to help. With a connection to the backstretch that dates back more than 50 years, Whitney said the evening of events gives people dignity and a fun night.

This is their fifth year of events for backstretch workers, who have become the major focus of Whitney since 2010, when she held her final summer gala.

As Hendrickson put it, “We were giving fun to all of our friends [with our party] and we wanted to bring it to the backstretch too.”

Whitney added that all too often the role of the backstretch workers is forgotten, when in actuality there couldn’t be a meet without them.

Familiar caller

New York Racing Association track announcer Tom Durkin, the most public face of the track, feels the same way, which is why he volunteers at bingo as the announcer.

He said his involvement is a way to say thank you and it is also fun for him, as he calls out the numbers in Spanish and jokes with the audience.

Durkin’s only regret is that he can’t call the whole night, because he needs to stop after about half an hour to preserve his voice for his day job. “I’d run out of vocal chords,” he said of doing the entire night of bingo.

Whitney and Hendrickson are also far from disinterested observers when they show up at nights, as Hendrickson has previously helped cook and Whitney occasionally picks raffle winners.

On a Wednesday night in early August, Whitney chats up one backstretch worker who has read an article about her and another one whose grandfather worked for her family. As this is going on, Hendrickson and the couple’s driver, both in suits, are moving around tables and chairs to make room for a larger than expected crowd.

Talking about the different nights, Whitney reveals she has a fondness for the “Learn English, eat Spanish” event on every Tuesday night. The concept tickles her fancy, but she stresses that the practical application of education makes communication a lot easier.

Less alienated

Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team, which is focused on the health of the workers, described the calendar of events as a wonderful opportunity for the workers. The result of the evening activities is reduced stress and less incidents on the backstretch.

“It makes people feel less alienated, more cared for and more welcome. It has had an enormous impact,” Ruchames said.

In addition to Whitney, the backstretch events’ sponsors include NYRA, Neal and Jane Golub, Stewart’s Shops, the Riggi Family, Jane Wait, and Ed and Maureen Lewi.

Whitney and Hendrickson are also vocal advocates about improving the living conditions of the backstretch workers. As a member of the New York Racing Association Board of Directors, Hendrickson has called on the corporation to use its capital projects fund to build new housing, which Whitney echoes wholeheartedly.

She suggested that with the millions of dollars NYRA receives for its capital projects from revenue generated by the electronic gambling at Aqueduct, there is definitely enough money to get this done. Her hope is that housing could be created that would allow workers to travel to Saratoga with their families, instead of having to be far apart from children and spouses.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply