SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Marylou Whitney, a successful thoroughbred breeder and owner whose family helped keep Saratoga Race Course open in the 1970s, has died. She was 93.
The New York Racing Association said she died Friday at her estate in Saratoga Springs, after a long illness. No further details were provided.
Whitney became the first woman in 80 years to own and breed a Kentucky Oaks winner in 2003 with Bird Town, a filly trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito. In 2004, Whitney and Zito teamed with Birdstone to win the Belmont Stakes, spoiling Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid. Birdstone won the Travers, Saratoga's signature race, later that summer.
Her stable had over 190 winners starting in 2000 and into the current year.
Before opening her own stable in 1992, Whitney teamed with her husband Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney to race horses. They won the Travers in 1960 with Tompion and again in 1968 with Chompion. C.V. Whitney co-founded the National Museum of Racing and Pan American Airlines in 1958.
In the 1970s, the couple helped convince NYRA to keep Saratoga open at a time when wagering and attendance sagged. Their efforts and long-term vision paid off, with Saratoga's summer meet attracting more than one million fans annually.
Whitney was nicknamed "Queen of Saratoga" for her philanthropic initiatives in Saratoga Springs.
The Whitneys founded the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1966 and continues to host world-class musical and dance performances.
C.V. Whitney died at age 93 in 1992.
In 1997, Whitney married John Hendrickson, who was 40 years her junior and an aide to Alaska's then-governor Wally Hickel. The couple continued her philanthropic endeavors, helping establish a program to help Saratoga stable workers.
"Marylou's passion for racing was only matched by her love for the City of Saratoga Springs and her support for the backstretch community," NYRA CEO and president Dave O'Rouke said. "Her generosity was unparalleled and the list of her contributions is endless. Saratoga would not be the destination it is today without the esteemed leadership, dedication and support of Marylou."
Whitney received an Eclipse Award of Merit in 2010 for her contributions to racing and was elected to The Jockey Club in 2011.
"Whether it was her extraordinary philanthropic endeavors, her festive galas, or her racing stable of stakes winners, Marylou devoted all of her energies to our sport and its traditions, most prominently, her beloved Saratoga," the Breeders' Cup said in a statement. "Marylou has left an indelible mark of distinction, class and style upon thoroughbred racing."
Last year, she was in attendance as the Racing Hall of Fame inducted three generations of Whitneys as Pillars of the Turf, including C.V Whitney, his father Harry Payne Whitney, and his grandfather Williams Collins Whitney, who purchased Saratoga in 1900 and also helped create Belmont Park.
"Mrs. Whitney was a beloved and irreplaceable icon whose extraordinary legacy will have a lasting effect on future generations," the Racing Hall of Fame and Museum said in a statement.
Born Marie Louise Schroeder on Dec. 24, 1925, she grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.
After graduating Southwest High School, she attended the University of Iowa for a time before working as an actress, appearing in movies and television shows and in radio.
Besides Hendrickson, she is survived by her five children, Louise, Frank, Henry, Heather, and Cornelia.