SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — For decades, townspeople and tourists would throng the sidewalks along Broadway and the entrance to Congress Park on the occasion of Marylou Whitney’s annual ball, the social event of the summer racing season.
Her entrance was as much a part of the spectacle as the party itself; she once arrived via dog sled for her Iditarod-themed party. For a Breakfast at Tiffany’s party, Mrs. Whitney, the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, showed up in a vintage New York City Checker cab.
But in 2012, Mrs. Whitney announced that the Whitney Ball would be no more. Instead, she and her third husband, John Hendrickson, said they would devote their summer resources to a less glamorous side of horse racing, a sport she loved so much.
Mrs. Whitney and Mr. Hendrickson began sponsoring a series of functions for the backstretch workers who care for the thoroughbreds that are the stars of Saratoga Race Course.
The centerpiece of those events were dinners held on Sunday night, often catered by area restaurants, and almost always attended by Mrs. Whitney and her husband.
Few photos at the dinners of Mrs. Whitney, who died on July 19 at age 93, found their way into the public eye; she never intended them to be public relations events. But all along the backstretch, in framed photos in office windowsills and in the cellphone photo galleries of workers, there is ample evidence of her presence.
Frail in her later years, Mrs. Whitney did not often circulate under the big white tent among the clothed tables set out for the backstretch workers. Instead, she had her spot toward the front, near the buffet, where she was easily accessible to all the guests.
“She always looked out for us, her and her husband,” said Lashard McCoy, who has worked as a groom and a hot walker at Saratoga for more than 20 years. “I thought I was going to see her again this year.”
Many of the backstretch workers live in dorms without kitchens, and they rely on grills, microwaves and other portable cooking appliances, along with the on-track kitchens, for meals. The catered dinners are a welcome change from their standard fare and symbolized Mrs. Whitney’s belief that the people who care for the horses deserved better.
“A lot of the people who live on the backstretch can’t afford to go to restaurants downtown or out to the mall to eat,” said Edward Escobar, who has worked in horse racing for more than 30 years. “These dinners come from the heart to the families of the backstretch.”
Over his career, Mr. Escobar has been an exercise rider for horses in the morning and a parking supervisor in the afternoon. Since 1995, he has volunteered with the track chaplaincy.
“She always spent time talking to us,” Mr. Escobar said of Mrs. Whitney. “We were sitting with her at a table last year, and she asked how we were and our opinion of the activities. She cared what we thought.”
More than 1,000 horses are stabled at Saratoga Race Course, and each one requires hours of daily hands-on care. Grooms are assigned to specific horses. They muck stalls, make sure the animals have feed and water, take care of their legs with ice and poultices and bandages, and they bathe them. Hot walkers spend hours walking in circles to cool horses down after exercise.
These jobs begin before dawn and are physically taxing, and while housing conditions and wages in recent years have improved, the lives of these workers, the majority of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, are far from the enviable, luxurious experiences most often featured in pictures of the racetrack. For most of the people who attend the races, backstretch workers are anonymous and invisible.
That was not the case with Mrs. Whitney.
“She and John both felt a calling to give back to the backbone of the industry,” said Humberto Chavez, the chaplain at the New York Racing Association tracks of Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, Belmont Park on Long Island and Saratoga Race Course. “I’ve never seen anyone interact with workers the way she did. The hug wasn’t perfunctory; it was a big hug and a kiss. She was happy to be there, and happy to know they were well.”
The program also included movie nights, bingo and trips to local attractions — all designed to give backstretch workers “an experience and make them feel special,” said Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team.
“She wanted them to feel the way other visitors to Saratoga feel, to be first class and respectful, and she more than achieved that goal.”
For the dinners, Mrs. Whitney cast a presence beneath the tents that were hoisted above a plain field, with a clientele that was dressed mostly in jeans and often coming straight from work. At one event, she was bedecked in a jeweled necklace, her hair styled, wearing a white dress.
“Even in later years, when she was very fragile, she would always come,” Mr. Ruchames said. “She truly wanted to meet and talk with backstretch workers, and they’d line up to speak with her.”
Mrs. Whitney was a force in thoroughbred racing: She raced and bred horses, winning the Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes with Birdstone in 2004. On Aug. 2, she will be inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Her death was first announced at Saratoga Race Course, silencing the Friday afternoon crowd as her picture was shown on the track’s many monitors.
Mr. Chavez, the track chaplain, recalled a backstretch worker overhearing the announcement of Mrs. Whitney’s passing.
“She came up to me crying, saying ‘She’s gone!’” the chaplain said. “She was about to ask, ‘Now what?’ but she stopped herself and said, ‘She’s gone, but she’ll never be forgotten.’ What she’s done for Saratoga Race Course and the backstretch will never be forgotten.”
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