SARATOGA SPRINGS — There were pink roses in front of the empty seat where Marylou Whitney was supposed to have been sitting.
And a star horse named for a deceased friend was entered in the race that has carried the Whitney name since 1928.
So it was only fitting that McKinzie carried the blanket of roses named for Marylou to the winner’s circle.
On an emotional day at Saratoga Race Course marking the first Grade I Whitney Stakes since the “Queen of Saratoga” died on July 19, the 4-year-old colt McKinzie responded to a hand ride by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith through the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Yoshida.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert choked up during one post-race interview, remembering not only Marylou Whitney, but also Brad McKinzie, a long-time executive at Los Alamitos Race Course who died two years ago at the age of 62.
In winning the Whitney for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, Baffert couldn’t help but recognize the weight of the moment.
“This was so important for him to win, not only for McKinzie, his namesake, but for the horse,” he said. “I’ve never won a Whitney, so the first thing I told my owners was, ‘I got my Whitney.’
“It’s sad that Marylou wasn’t here. I would’ve really liked that. That’s the only thing missing. She was always so nice to us. We loved him [Brad McKinzie]. I’m just glad that this horse is as good as he is. We named him at his funeral.”
“Big Brad was a one-of-a-kind person, and this horse is a one-of-a-kind horse,” co-owner Mike Pegram said. “When Bobby called me and told me we had a good one, I said, ‘There’s only one name we can give him.’ And you’ve seen him today.”
And you will see more of McKinzie on the biggest stages of racing, as he shook off a troubled trip in the Met Mile last time out to show himself to be the best older dirt horse in the country, and perhaps the best horse across all divisions.
“To me, he’s the best horse in the country,” Baffert said. “I was a little frustrated with the Met Mile, but I think he’s getting better and better. I’m glad that he got the right trip, and Mike says he’s got him figured out now. It took him long enough, but he rode him with a lot of confidence. He can be on the lead, off the lead.”
Whitney Day drew a paid admission crowd of 40,791 and a established a new all-sources handle for Whitney Day of $31,835,863, breaking the record set in 2017 by almost $1.7 million.
Whitney Day started on a sour note when Godolphin’s Thunder Snow scratched in the morning due to a cough and “a little bit of a fever,” trainer Saeed bin Suroor said.
That removed the 3-1 co-second choice on the morning line from the race, depriving the Saratoga fans of seeing a two-time Dubai World Cup winner take on McKinzie and six others.
“I felt bad for them, because I know this game,” Baffert said. “I’ve had it happen to me. You don’t want to hear that. It’s tough luck. It can happen to anybody. We just stayed focused and worried about our own horse. And Mike rode a brilliant race.”
Baffert said watching the Met Mile broadcast at home in California was “the only time I wanted to throw something at the TV,” since McKinzie couldn’t find clear running room until it was too late in deep stretch, gobbling up ground but finishing three-quarters of a length behind Mitole.
That wasn’t an issue at all in the Whitney, as Smith positioned McKinzie in second by a length with an outside path behind Preservationist.
He took the lead coming off the second turn without much urging from Smith and coasted home.
“That was incredible. He ran big,” Smith said. “There were some good horses in there, so he had to run, but he ran. That’s the important thing. He had to work at it, but he got away from them, and the best part of it was at the end of the race. That gives me confidence going a mile and a quarter down the road.”
“When they came to him, I got a little bit nervous,” Baffert said. “I thought maybe he doesn’t want to go that far. He’s a big, lanky horse, and we want to have some fun with him.”
McKinzie was considered Baffert’s top Kentucky Derby prospect last year, but physical issues took him off the Triple Crown trail.
After a five-month break from racing, he came back to win the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby, but was 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only time he had finished worse than second in 11 races coming into the Whitney, five of which were Grade I and three of which were Grade II.
Now, he’s coming into his own in a big way, despite the loss in the Met Mile.
“I thought he was going to win the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said. “I was in Dubai, and had to call the owners. There’s nothing worse than having to call the owners and tell them that their Derby dreams have been shattered.
“He’s one of the top 10 I’ve ever trained. That’s why the Met Mile was so frustrating. I told Mike, ‘The horse came back fresh, and fine, so we’ll just get ’em at the next stop.’ That’s what you do, you regroup, and here we are. Got a Whitney.”