SARATOGA SPRINGS - Gov. Andrew Cuomo Saturday announced plans for the creation of the “Marylou Whitney Backstretch Pavilion,” a permanent structure at the Saratoga Race Course to honor the woman many called “the Queen of Saratoga.”
Cuomo visited the Saratoga Race Course Saturday for the first time during his nine years as New York governor. He spoke to a small gathering of about 40 people — officials, Saratoga Springs community members and media — inside a conference room at the 1863 Club, which overlooks the race track.
Cuomo declared Aug. 3 to be Marylou Whitney Day in New York.
“The story of horse racing and the story of Marylou Whitney, the Queen of Saratoga, could not be more intertwined. Marylou was the heart, the spirit, the personality, the mystique, beauty, the charisma that represents the best of New York’s horse racing industry. Marylou and her husband John [Hendrickson] were the drivers for the industry’s success,” Cuomo said.
Whitney died July 19 at age 93. Her daughter Heather Mabee, as well as other family members, attended Cuomo’s speech. She said she was shocked at the creation of the pavilion.
“None of the family knew about this,” Mabee said.
The governor’s press office said the planned pavilion will hold up to 400 people and will be built on the spot that Whitney and John Hendrickson had in recent years sponsored a series of functions for the race course’s backstretch workers, including hosting and attending Sunday dinners under a temporary tent. The pavilion is expected to be built by July 2020.
“Marylou and John were extraordinarily devoted to the well-being of the many seasonal backstretch workers who are the backbone of Saratoga Race Course. Twelve years ago, they started the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation Program, which provides entertainment, food, movies and language instruction to the backstretch workers during the Saratoga meet,” Cuomo said.
Mabee said her family is honored the governor would name a permanent pavilion after her mother, and doubly glad the pavilion will be dedicated for the course’s backstretch workers.
“They were a passion for her, because she realized the heart and soul of this race track [is made up] of these backstretch workers,” Mabee said. “Those horses wouldn’t be on that track if it wasn’t for the backstretch workers. They are the ones who get up at 4 a.m. in the morning and are grooming and cleaning those horses to get them ready for training. Then, in the afternoon they’re getting them over here to the track to be in the races. Then at the end of the day, they’re feeding them at 6 and 7 p.m. and putting them to bed. They are truly the unsung heroes of the race track.”
No cost estimates were provided for the pavilion. Mabee said the stretch of land it will be built on is 50-feet by 100-feet.
Although Cuomo had previously stated in an interview with WAMC News that he wasn’t a horse racing fan “per se,” he made it clear Saturday he has been pleased with the turnaround at the New York Racing Association over the past five years. He said the 30,000-square-foot 1863 Club, the first new structure built at the race course in over 50 years, is symbolic of the success NYRA has had.
“New York’s racing industry now generates $3 billion a year,” Cuomo said. “Belmont Park is reborn as a major sports complex and is going to be even greater in the next couple of years.”
“The experience of race-goers has never been better,” Cuomo said. “NYRA’s also at the forefront of preserving the integrity and safety of the sport. And all employees at NYRA, from the front office to the backstretch, are sharing in that success and that is saying something.”
NYRA Board Chairman Michael Del Giudice introduced Cuomo before his speech. He credited Cuomo with reorganizing NYRA during his first year in office with a new statute and new board members.
“This was all done immediately by the new governor to make things work a lot better,” Del Giudice said. “NYRA is doing really well. The track is doing really well. This 1863 Club was built, it took a year to build, and it’s been an enormous success.”
After the speech, Cuomo watched a horse race in Del Giudice’s box. A spokesman for Cuomo tweeted that the governor played a bet on a horse named “Our Country” and won.