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Racing was in Marylou Whitney's blood

Racing was in Marylou Whitney's blood

The 'Queen of Saratoga,' who is being honored in a variety of events this week, made her mark as an owner and breeder of thoroughbreds
Racing was in Marylou Whitney's blood
Jockey John Velazquez, left, and trainer Nick Zito hold the trophy after King Zachary won the Birdstone at Saratoga Thursday.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The massive black cloud rolled in like a malevolent force during the post parade.

Grumbling thunder and distant flashes of lightning greeted the horses as they walked onto the track.

Then it rained -- hard -- so dark that car headlights shone on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch, where the field for the 2004 Travers was running, presumably. You could barely see them.

None of that meant a thing to then-78-year-old Marylou Whitney, who made her way through the storm to the winner's circle, shimmering in her trademark Eton blue, with a wide-brimmed brown hat, colors worn by jockey Edgar Prado and carried by her winning horse Birdstone.

Much has been appropriately said and written about the philanthropy and social life of Marylou, who died at 93 on July 19, the Queen of Saratoga's benevolence touching a variety of wonderful causes and institutions in this city and in racing.

But it's worth remembering how much joy she derived from the Sport of Kings simply as a sportswoman, somebody who felt racing in her bones and took pride in maintaining a competitive Whitney stable after the 1992 death of her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, a third-generation racing blueblood.

That legacy is represented by the stakes race named after Birdstone that was run at Saratoga on Thursday, a street sign with his name on Union Avenue and a lawn jockey in the Marylou Whitney silks in front of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. She'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf Friday morning, then the New York Racing Association will name the track's clubhouse entrance after her during a ceremony in the afternoon.

No one can speak to that legacy better than Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who trained Birdstone and Marylou's Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town.

"She loved it. Yeah, she loved it," Zito said Wednesday morning. "The one thing is, she was a great horsewoman. People didn't realize that. We talked  horses a lot. And she learned a lot, obviously, from C.V. Whitney. She got that blood back. She was sharp."

One of her first moves upon starting Marylou Whitney Stables was to acquire mares with pedigrees reflecting traditional Whitney bloodstock.

Among them was Dear Birdie, who would give birth to Bird Town in 2000 and Birdstone in 2001.

Marylou always came down to the winner's circle for the Whitney stakes trophy presentation, and made two trips on Aug. 2, 2003, for the big race and after Birdstone won his career debut.

The following year, the bettors sent him off as a big long shot, at 36-1, in the Belmont Stakes, where the wildly popular Smarty Jones was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Instead, the little colt Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in deep stretch, bringing the Belmont Park crowd of 120,000 to a stunned hush. A few beer cans were directed at Zito and Marylou, who apologized for spoiling the Triple Crown fun.

"It's very unusual for an owner to say that in this day and age," Zito said. "She liked Smarty Jones, and she told me she thought he was great for racing, so she kind of felt bad.

"But I think in the Travers, redemption came, and she was happy. It was wonderful, because we had beaten Smarty Jones, all the apologizing was over with and now we went and did our thing and we wind up winning what had to be in the top five [memorable] Travers of all time, with the lightning and the rain."

I remember that. Who could forget?

And one of the most vivid parts of that memory is seeing Marylou, a total trouper, heading to the winner's circle, when the easy call would've been to stay in the box seats.

No way.

Five years later, Marylou paid a visit to the stakes barn to see two horses she didn't own, but who had been sired by Birdstone.

Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont winner Summer Bird had shipped in to run in the Travers, and although Mine That Bird didn't make the race (Summer Bird won it), she just had to see them.

Birdstone was the first stallion to sire two classic winners in his first crop since the 1880s.

"It's been a delight, because it's easy to talk about her," Zito said.

"I've given her a lot of compliments over the last two weeks, and, I'll tell you, one of the biggest compliments I can give her, I would go somewhere with her and [husband] John [Hendrickson], and I'd be right next to her, and I was just another guy. I'd walk down the stairs with her and laugh and say to myself, 'Now I get it. She's a 93-year-old rock star.'"

Zito keeps a few winner's circle photos in his office, including  Birdstone's Travers and Belmont.

Despite a drenching thunderstorm on Aug. 28, 2004, and despite having ruined everybody's good time 11 weeks earlier, Marylou is beaming in both.

"She would want people to celebrate her life," Zito said. "When they say 'celebration of life,' that's what she meant. That's what she wanted to do."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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