Socialite Marylou Whitney and husband John Hendrickson see Native Dancer as a perfect symbol to welcome visitors to Saratoga Springs.
The Hall of Fame thoroughbred dubbed “The Grey Ghost” couldn’t be beaten at Saratoga Race Course, where he won in all six appearances. Native Dancer’s victories were also among the first broadcast on television, something that quickly vaulted him into the national spotlight.
By next year, the couple hope to have a bronze likeness of the legendary thoroughbred mounted on a marble footing they are planning for the terminus of Union Avenue at Congress Park. The gift from Whitney and Hendrickson will construct a small pocket park with fountains designed to look like a winner’s circle from overhead and a horseshoe in the approach to Circular Street.
“It’s to welcome people to the city,” Hendrickson said Tuesday. “It’s also to remind people that horse racing is an anchor of the city — that horse racing and Saratoga are synonymous.”
The couple has commissioned noted equine sculptor Gwen Reardon to craft a life-sized statue of Native Dancer with a jockey to be mounted on a base that welcomes visitors to the city. The gift would replace the flower bed and rock formation commissioned by the Pillar Society that now occupies the space.
The society funded the replacement of an older planter about eight years ago. City workers moved rocks taken from Railroad Place to help form the arrangement.
“They like what is there, but they see this as an upgrade,” said Hendrickson, whose wife is a member of the society.
If accepted by the city, the park would be built at no cost to taxpayers. The bequest of the statue alone has an estimated value of more than $200,000.
“This is a very generous opportunity,” Mayor Joanne Yepsen said during the City Council meeting Tuesday.
Hendrickson said he and Whitney discussed incorporating either Man O’ War or Secretariat — two other legendary thoroughbreds — into the design. But both horses had relatively poor performances at Saratoga, while Native Dancer’s career in the city was marked by success.
Native Dancer also has a distant connection to Whitney, one of the city’s most prominent boosters. The horse was owned by Alfred Vanderbilt Jr., a relative of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, her second husband.
The statue, fountains and landscaping would be dubbed Centennial Park after the centennial next year of the city’s incorporation — Whitney and Hendrickson are heading the celebration committee. The little park would also include a sidewalk to connect either side to the sidewalk running along Circular Street. The area would be lit and visible from Congress Park.
“We’d have something permanent at the end of Union Avenue of some significance,” said Michael Ingersoll of the LA Group, who laid out a preliminary design Tuesday. “This would really give a place to say you’ve arrived in Saratoga.”
City officials were receptive to the gift Tuesday and could accept it soon. If they accept it, Hendrickson said the project could be completed in time to welcome visitors to the city next summer.
“We wanted to give a gift to the community to show our respect and love for the city,” he said. “This is a way to give back to the city we love.”