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Popular Whitney gala a victim of recession

Popular Whitney gala a victim of recession

How bad is the economic crisis? So bad that socialite Marylou Whitney has canceled her annual Whitne

How bad is the economic crisis?

So bad that socialite Marylou Whitney has canceled her annual Whitney gala. The gala has been held each year during the August thoroughbred horse racing meet since 1959, except for 2006 when Whitney was recuperating from a stroke.

“To have an extravagant party in this economy would be in bad taste,” said John Hendrickson, Whitney’s husband. “It was a very, very difficult decision,” Hendrickson said on Thursday. Whitney didn’t want to “depress” the Saratoga Springs community by canceling the 2009 edition of the party at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park.

But she also wanted to be respectful of the people who have lost their jobs or are having a difficult time during the economic downturn, he said.

When times get better, Hendrickson said, Whitney will resume her annual galas, which usually attract more than 300 invited guests, including television and movie personalities and wealthy horse owners.

The lavish parties, which are often held on the eve of the Whitney Handicap race at Saratoga Race Course, have a different theme each year. One year the theme was the Broadway musical “Showboat” while another year it was “A Night in Hong Kong.”

Whitney would plan the gala all year, booking performers to entertain her guests and those who gather outside of the Casino on the night of the party to see her make her entrance.

Hendrickson said Marylou Whitney’s health is currently excellent.

Whitney made a robust recovery from the stroke in 2006 through hard work and determination, Hendrickson said.

“She is not curtailing her schedule,” Hendrickson said about this summer’s party and fundraiser schedule. She has already been invited to about 40 events in July and August and will be honorary chairwoman for some of them.

Hendrickson said he and Whitney will continue to host Sunday dinners and movie nights for backstretch workers this summer at Saratoga Race Course on Union Avenue, which they started doing last summer.

Working with the New York Racing Association’s backstretch support organizations, Whitney and Hendrickson showed movies five nights a week on the backstretch for those who work as hot walkers, stable sweepers and grooms. The movies are presented on a 9-by-12-foot screen and hot dogs, hamburgers, soda and popcorn are served.

On six Sundays last summer, Whitney had Tony Panza cater a Sunday dinner for 1,000 backstretch workers and their families. One dinner would have a Mexican theme, another dinner might have a Cuban theme, Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson said he and Marylou feel badly for the people who usually cater and staff the annual Whitney gala because they won’t have that work this summer.

He suggested that the guests who usually purchase expensive new dresses for the annual gala instead donate this money to a charity of their choice.

“We are trying to be respectful,” Hendrickson said. “We are not trying to depress [the community].”

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