The stars were aligned at Saratoga last summer when Marylou Whitney's Birdstone was victorious in the Spa meeting's most prestigious race, the Travers (gr. I). No one personifies Saratoga Springs better than Whitney, whose tireless dedication to fund-raising for numerous charities reaches its zenith during the summer race meeting.
But the Whitney charitable touch is felt far and wide. Two years ago, during a luncheon at Keeneland, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation announced a pledge for $500,000 from the Maker's Mark distillery to fund the Secretariat Center, a re-training operation at the Kentucky Horse Park. The Thoroughbred industry needed to match the $500,000 to make it happen.
Whitney, along with Penny Chenery, was one of the first backers of the TRF when it was founded nearly 25 years ago. Back then, the concept of saving and rehabilitating retired racehorses had little support within the horse industry. Whitney listened to the April 2003 presentation with a certain amount of pride that comes with backing a winner. "I really want to help them," she said to her husband, John Hendrickson. "They've come so far and deserve support."
Help them she did. Whitney pledged $100,000 to construct the Secretariat Center's main barn. One year later, on the eve of the TRF facility's grand opening, she stepped forward with another $50,000. Whitney commented that she and Hendrickson "believe it is the responsibility of every horse owner to ensure that our Thoroughbreds have a good home from the beginning to the end."
While the industry remains in the dark ages regarding institutional funding of Thoroughbred retirement and re-training operations, there is an increasing number of enlightened and concerned individuals offering help.
Kentucky horse owners Tracy and Carol Farmer, who were seated with Hendrickson and Whitney at that TRF luncheon two years ago, are two such people. The Farmers share more with Hendrickson and Whitney than a concern for retired racehorses. Until recently, they all entrusted their runners to the care of trainer Nick Zito, whose wife, Kim, is another individual devoted to horse retirement issues. (Hendrickson and Whitney have since hired former Zito assistant Reynaldo Abreu as their private trainer.)
Their friendship grew, and late last year the two couples decided to take a cruise together, in part to celebrate Marylou Whitney's birthday on Christmas Eve. There was a Christmas wish tree onboard, and Hendrickson hung a star on it while making the following wish: that Tracy and Carol Farmer's Commentator would win the 2005 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) Aug. 6 so his bride could present the trophy to her friends. Farmer told Whitney he had a similar dream, but felt the odds of it coming true with Commentator were somewhat large.
Commentator was sensational last year as a 3-year-old, winning all five of his starts by an average of more than eight lengths. But the New York-bred gelding by Distorted Humor had never raced beyond a mile or against graded stakes company. He failed in his first try, tiring to finish seventh in the nine-furlong Hal's Hope Handicap (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park in January. Put on the shelf by Zito, Commentator came back to destroy an optional claiming field going seven furlongs at Belmont Park June 29.
Commentator then fulfilled Hendrickson's wish and Farmer's dream, winning the nine-furlong Whitney, but it wasn't easy. He opened a big lead down the backstretch, setting fast fractions, then had just enough left at the end to hold off odds-on favorite Saint Liam.
As he grabbed the shank and led Commentator into the Saratoga winner's circle, Farmer looked like a kid who had just unwrapped the best Christmas present ever. And there to greet him, holding the Whitney trophy, was Marylou.
The stars were aligned again.