Philanthropist, socialite and horsewoman Marylou Whitney has died at age 93, the New York Racing Association announced Friday afternoon. She died Friday at her home Cady Hill in Saratoga Springs, NY.
The association said in a statement that “the Queen of Saratoga was one of racing’s most dedicated supporters and a tremendous ambassador for the industry.”
She and her second husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, whom she married in 1958, bred and owned hundreds of stakes winners over the years, including four winners of the Belmont Stakes.
While she was most closely associated with Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where her primary residence was located, Whitney maintained a residence on Bryan Station Road in Lexington.
Her lavish parties, where celebrities like Princess Margaret, Rock Hudson and Ginger Rogers ate from gold plates, became part of the lore surrounding the Kentucky Derby.
Those parties ended a few years after the death of C.V. Whitney, a descendant of the inventor of the cotton gin and the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. He left Marylou Whitney a $100 million fortune upon his death in 1992.
But though the Derby parties were over, Marylou Whitney went on to live a full life in her later years.
She married John Hendrickson and began rebuilding her racing and breeding business under the name Marylou Whitney Stables. Her filly Bird Town won the Kentucky Oaks in 1993, and Birdstone won the Belmont the following year.
She received an Eclipse Award of Merit for her years of work in the Thoroughbred industry in 2010.
Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association issued a statement Friday, saying “Marylou Whitney embodied all of the best qualities of the sport to which she devoted her time, heart, and resources. From her exceptional philanthropy to her innovative mind and indelible spirit, she was a champion of excellence in every endeavor she graced. The Thoroughbred racing community – and the world – have suffered a great loss but we are forever grateful for her lasting contributions to our sport.”
Aside from her love of horses, Whitney will be remembered as a major contributor to a number of philanthropic causes, including Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital and the University of Kentucky, where she and John Hendrickson helped fund a cancer care center that bears their name.
“She was always extremely supportive of women’s cancer care,” said Dr. Jack van Nagell, the American Cancer Society professor of clinical oncology at UK, who provided medical care for Whitney for many years. “So many women with cancer in Kentucky are justifiably very thankful to both she and John for what they’ve done.”
He said Whitney, a cancer survivor herself, “was always very interested in what was going on at the cancer facility.”
For years, Whitney helped raise money for Cardinal Hill through its annual telethon. In 2007, she and Hendrickson donated $500,000 to the facility in appreciation for the care she had received there while recovering from a stroke in 2006.
She also was a prominent supporter of The Headley-Whitney Museum, which was founded by George Headley and his wife, Barbara Whitney, the sister of C.V. Whitney.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Marylou Whitney worked as an actress and radio disc jockey in her early years. She created a radio show called “Private Smiles,” serenading troops during World War II with songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra.
She married her first husband, Frank Hosford, the heir to a fortune from John Deere farm equipment, in 1948. The couple had four children before divorcing ten years later.
She and Whitney married soon after and had one child together.
She married Hendrickson, a former aide to Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, in 1997, after he proposed to her with a 13-carat ring at Buckingham Palace. Hickel had introduced the couple several years earlier.