40 Days: A Salute to Saratoga–The Whitneys

Old money. Like founding-of-the-republic old money. The Whitneys have had money since before the United States of America was born during that hot summer in Philadelphia in 1776. They have all of the trappings of old money too – Yale (too many Yale degrees to count), prep school, big industry, philanthropy, you name it. They are the bluest of the blue-bloods.

CV Whitney even doubled down on his blue-blood. On the Whitney side, he is a descendant of Eli Whitney, whom everyone who has graduated from grammar school remembers as the inventor of the cotton gin. Eli knew how to monetize that invention too, creating wealth that would last for generations. But that wasn’t it for CV Whitney – he married was also a scion of the Vanderbilt family, a direct descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, through his mother Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Cornelius Vanderbilt. The captain of the Robber Barons. Creating massive wealth for himself by eliminating economic competition, his fortune was based on transportation – railways and steam ships. He also had ideas that were incredibly visionary. For one, he explore the idea of building a canal through Nicaragua in Central America, using the existing Lake Nicaragua as part of the passageway. The Chinese government is working with Nicaragua right now to see such a project through. But the actions of Mr. Vanderbilt and his fellow Robber Barons also led to massive wealth inequality in the United States, giving rise to the progressive era and eventually, the trust-busting of Theodore Roosevelt. But by that time, the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys had more than enough money to last for many, many generations.

But what does that have to do with horse racing? Well, as it turns out, a lot. CV Whitney’s grandfather started a stable and a thoroughbred stud farm in 1900. In 1930, when Whitney’s father died, CV Whitney took over that operation (and inherited $20 million). Whitney would go on to turn it into one of the most successful thoroughbred owning and breeding operations in the history of the sport.

CV Whitney established himself and his family in the cradles of horse racing, owning a farm in Lexington and an estate in Saratoga Springs. His stable would enjoy enormous success,

In 1958, he married Marylou Whitney, who currently is the matriarch of the Whitney family and the carrier of the Whitney torch in the racing world. 450 stakes horses were bred or raised on the Whitney farm in Lexington. The Whitneys also raced many great horses in their own family silks, the greatest of which probably being the great Equipoise, who won 29 of 51 starts and was in the money in 43 of 51 starts.

CV Whitney lived to see two of his horses win the Belmont Stakes, Phalanx in 1947 and Counterpoint in 1951. Phalanx was the closest he would come to winning the biggest race in the U.S., the Kentucky Derby, losing by a head to Jet Pilot, with Eric Guerin in the irons. Of course, after CV Whitney passed away, his stable would win yet another Belmont with Birdstone, spoiling the hopes of Smarty Jones in the process. Birdstone would go on to win the Travers at Saratoga that summer, in a race that must have been particularly meaningful for the Whitney family.

The Whitneys, and old money families like them, are of immense importance to horse racing. They are a direct link to the past, a way to keep the history of the sport alive and connected to the present. They are the defenders of the sport’s heritage, the pathway back to prior classic winners, great sires and broodmares, farms that have fostered the greatest bloodlines in the history of the breed. They also stand in contrast to the new money owners – the Mike Repoles an those like him, and the small time or syndicate owners who strike lightning in a bottle, like the guys in Sackatoga Stable (owners of Funny Cide) or, of course, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, the owners of California Chrome. All of these different types of owners can exist in the complicated horse racing ecosystem, something that makes the sport approachable and inviting. There have been tomes written about the contributions that the Whitney family have made to the sport of racing, but in my view, the fullness of their history, and their continuous activity and investment in the sport are what makes them one the most important families in the history of the game, and an essential piece of the sport’s success going forward. In order for thoroughbred racing to regain prominence in the American sporting landscape, it will need to promote and publicize the richness of its history.

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