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Backstretch help replaces Whitney gala this year

Backstretch help replaces Whitney gala this year

Socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, aren’t having their annual Whitney Gala
Backstretch help replaces Whitney gala this year
Mary Lou Whitney, left, and Saratoga resident Patty Rich talk to Whitney&rsquo;s husband, John Hendrickson, at Whitney&rsquo;s luncheon on Wednesday.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, aren’t having their annual Whitney Gala this summer in deference to the recession, but they’ve stepped up their activities on the backstretch of Saratoga Race Course for the benefit of the more than 1,000 hot walkers, stable cleaners and horse grooms who work and live there.

The socialite, who has recovered from a serious stroke three years ago, and Hendrickson have planned an event every evening of the racing meet on the backstretch, Hendrickson said Wednesday.

They have organized and sponsor, or have recruited friends to sponsor, everything from catered, international theme dinners every Sunday to movies (in Spanish on a 9-foot-by-12-foot screen), live concerts, bingo and karaoke nights through Sept. 6.

“We are having fun,” Hendrickson said. “We replaced the energy that we put into the gala into providing entertainment and fun on the backstretch.”

Whitney did hold her annual start of the racing meet luncheon for about 90 friends Wednesday in the Carousel Restaurant at Saratoga Race Course.

“She’s doing great,” said friend Maureen Lewi of Ed Lewi Associates of Clifton Park. “She wore a beautiful white suit and a hot pink hat. She looked great.”

For nearly 40 years, Whitney had hosted a lavish, invitation-only party in the Canfield Casino in Congress Park on a Friday night in early August. Usually, the Whitney party, with at least 300 guests, fell on the eve of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course.

But the difficult economy, layoffs and business failures of 2008 and this year convinced Whitney and Hendrickson that it would be in bad taste to hold a big gala that didn’t benefit any charitable cause.

“I called up every single one of my friends,” Hendrickson said about the backstretch initiative.

He said he asked for their help to expand backstretch activities that Whitney was already sponsoring during the last racing season. All the events are held under a big tent next to the backstretch recreation center on Union Avenue, across from the main track.

For example, track announcer Tom Durkin, who also calls all the nationally televised Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup horse races, will be calling bingo on the backstretch tonight in English and Spanish. The bingo is free and the prizes purchased by Whitney include flat-screen televisions, bicycles and watches.

Hendrickson said Whitney, in her early 80s, has worked extremely hard during her recovery from the stroke.

“She never gives up,” he said. “Strokes aren’t easy to get over.”

He said many believe that the first six months after a stroke is when the majority of the recovery occurs. But Whitney’s continued, regular workouts under a trainer’s direction have proved very beneficial.

“She’s not sick anymore,” Hendrickson said. “We have been very lucky.”

In recognition of this good fortune, Whitney and Hendrickson are helping to fund a stroke recovery rehabilitation hospital in Kentucky, where they have a home. Whitney also has a home, an estate called Cady Hill, off Geyser Road in Saratoga Springs.

Hendrickson said he hopes the national and local economy improves enough in 2010 that he and Whitney can again feel comfortable hosting the annual gala.

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