By Ray Wallin
There are many who have left their mark on the sport of horse racing. If someone says Seabiscuit or Secretariat, you know who they are talking about. While horse names will be forever remembered for their accomplishments, there are many humans that have left their mark on the sport. Jockeys like Gary Stevens or Jerry Bailey are recognizable to the masses for the amazing races they have ridden. Even casual fans can spot trainer Bob Baffert’s white hair and sunglasses out of a crowd.
However, outside the inner circle of horse racing, many people don’t know those that have given a lot of their money, time, and lives to the sport. Owners are often a footnote on a telecast of a major race gleefully hoisting a trophy or stopping for a short interview. To the average horseplayer this is not a factor they consider when looking at the races. Instead of watching the pomp and circumstance post-race they are right back looking for their next winner. Yet without the sacrifices and financial investments of the owners, the sport will never thrive.
Sadly, the sport of horse racing lost one of the greatest modern owners and philanthropists recently when the “Queen of Saratoga,” Marylou Whitney, passed away at the age of 93. Many horseplayers will never know of the humanity and compassion she showed, even canceling her annual gala one year so that the money could be used to support the backstretch workers. Most horseplayers won’t even realize that she owned many of the great horses they wagered on over the course of their life.
How do I remember Marylou Whitney’s contributions to the sport? I remember her by the memories she left on the track with many of her great horses. This is the story of one of her horses that burned me once, but not twice.
In the fall of 2003, I fell in love with a colt I watched break his maiden down at Philadelphia Park by over seven lengths. This colt would turn around quickly to win a minor stakes race by an amazing 15 lengths a mere two weeks later. I knew before we hit New Year’s Eve that I had found my Kentucky Derby winner for May. This horse was the impressive Smarty Jones, the only Kentucky Derby winner that I have ever watched break their maiden in person.
As he entered his 3-year-old season it seemed that there was nothing he couldn’t do. He pulled off wins in the Count Fleet Stakes, the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel Stakes, and then the Arkansas Derby. He was the most confident Kentucky Derby selection I touted in my life, winning that and the Preakness to set up a historic bid to run for the Triple Crown, a feat that had been denied for a quarter of a century.
Enter the bay colt Birdstone. He had broken his maiden at Saratoga before Smarty Jones had ever set foot on the track. He’d finish fourth in the Hopeful Stakes later that summer in his next start at the Spa before going on to win the Champagne Stakes in October at Belmont. After a four month layoff, he would be ready to resume his quest for the Triple Crown.
An easy allowance win at Gulfstream raised expectations; however a dismal fifth place finish in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway proved disappointing. He would then finish eighth behind Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby. Bypassing the Preakness, he was pointed for the epic showdown which is one of my favorite, albeit costly, stretch runs of all time.
With everything to win, Smarty Jones looked like he had the race in hand until Birdstone gave him more than he could handle to finish ahead by a length at 36-1. I tore up my tickets as the race became official. I was less than a furlong from cashing in on history. I was less than a furlong from witnessing history!
By the end of August, all my teacher friends were setting up their classrooms and getting school supplies in order. Yet, I was awaiting the return of Birdstone to the track. He got a much needed break until the end of August when he was entered in the Travers at Saratoga.
The race set up perfectly. Lion Heart went out the lead but felt the pressure of Purge and Eddington and gave way by the stretch. Birdstone waited patiently about a length or so off the lead and once again made his move in the stretch. This time he finished clear by 2 1/2 lengths. More importantly, I had redeemed myself with a horse that I couldn’t believe went off a 9-2. Instead of tearing up my tickets, I was going to be cashing the win bet, the exacta, double, and a Pick 4 that returned a hefty $1,314.
While I never knew Marylou Whitney personally, I could only read about the great work she did with the privileges she had over the course of her life. She gave back to racing as much enjoyment I am sure she got from being a part of it.
As a horseplayer, you play a lot of races. The ones that stick out in your mind are the big payouts, the great horses, or the great stories. No one remembers the horse they bet on in the bottom tier claimer at Penn National last Friday night. Instead you remember the great stretch drives. You remember watching a Triple Crown dream evaporate with the finish line in sight. You remember the great stories behind the horses.
Birdstone is just one example of the history and great memories that Marylou Whitney gave us on the track, even though she will always be known for her work off the track. I hope she is smiling down at the great legacy she has left behind both on and off the track.