The Inaugural Whitney, 1928

Aug 4th 2010 09:32 am |

On Saturday, Saratoga will host the 83rd edition of the Whitney Handicap — a race that has attracted a who’s who of racing greats over the years.

These days, “The Whitney” is associated with the whole of the influential racing family. However, if you check the primary sources from 1928 — the year of its inaugural running — you’ll find that the race was named for a specific member of the family: William Payne Whitney. His brother, Harry Payne Whitney, and father, William Collins Whitney, might have been more well-known in racing circles, but it was William Payne, founder of Greentree Stable in 1914, whose death on May 25th 1927 inspired the honorary stakes race that bears the Whitney name.

The Saratoga crowd, 1927 (National Turf Digest)

Early in 1928, details of the newly established Whitney for older horses was reported by The Hartford Courant:

“Richard T. Wilson, the Saratoga Association’s president, and George Bull, the secretary, look for the generous cooperation of horsemen in their effort to make Saratoga’s race memorial of the late Payne Whitney a success from its inaugural. This memorial, The Whitney, is to be a race of one mile and a quarter for stallions and mares 3-year-old and over — geldings barred…

“…Such a race should win immediate popularity with horsemen as it is sure to with patrons of racing. And it is singularly appropriate that the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses should commemorate Payne Whitney, whose father, the late William Collins Whitney, collaborated with Richard T. Wilson twenty-eight years ago in the reclamation and organization of Saratoga racing and the creation here of one of the finest plants in the world. Payne Whitney, himself, recently played a similar role with his elder brother, Harry Payne Whitney, and Joseph E. Widener with reference to Belmont Park.

Unassuming and modest in spite of enormous wealth and power, the younger Whitney never raced in his own name, although he imported a number of great horses, bred others and stimulated the American thoroughbred market through many seasons, lean and fat, by buying generously, privately and at public sales”

On July 22nd 1928, as the Saratoga season neared a start, an article under the headline “First Whitney to be a Memorable Event” had this:

“The Whitney commemorates Payne Whitney, who died a year ago last spring to the inestimable loss of American racing of which he had become a sturdy pillar. The Whitney is the sort of race Payne Whitney would have had named after him if his modesty had permitted that any be run at a course of which he was a director. Mr. Whitney was a firm believer in distance racing and at the time of his death was interested in several plans for bringing that sort of racing back to its old estate in America.”

Black Maria

The first Whitney on August 11th 1928 only drew four runners and was won by the mare Black Maria. She beat Chance Shot, Friar’s Hope, and 1927 Kentucky Derby winner Whiskery, who was bred and owned by Harry Payne Whitney. It was the last win of Black Maria’s stellar career in which she won eighteen times from fifty-starts including the Kentucky Oaks, Met Mile, Ladies Handicap (twice), and the Aqueduct Handicap (twice). She also finished second to Crusader in the 1927 Suburban — in addition to placings in the Saratoga Handicap, Carter, Alabama, and Coaching Club American Oaks.

Among the list of winners that followed Black Maria include Equipoise, Discovery, Devil Diver, Tom Fool, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Lady’s Secret, Personal Ensign, and Easy Goer. In 1973, the great Secretariat finished second to a horse named Onion in one of the most shocking upsets in Saratoga racing history. Today, the race ranks as one of the most prestigious races in the the U.S. for older horses — a great homage to William Payne Whitney and the family whose influence on American racing, especially in New York, can’t be underestimated.


“Memorial Race in Honor of Payne Whitney at Spa to Offer one of Largest Purses,” The Hartford Courant, 26 Febuary 1928

“First Whitney to be a Memorable Event,” The Sunday Morning Star, 28 July 1928

Image of Black Maria from Thoroughbred Heritage

Check out the Hello Race Fans site later in the week for an edition of “Ten Things” about the Whitney

Teresa — of Brooklyn Backstretch fame — published a wonderful piece in the Saratogian about the old eighth pole from Aqueduct Race Track now on display at Saratoga.

And, a great piece from about the 1921 Travers Stakes and the “milk drinking thug” Arnold Rothstein

I am looking forward to my annual trip to Saratoga this weekend…I’ll be arriving late Thursday and spending three days at one of my favorite places in the world.


Filed in Black Maria,Saratoga Race Course,The Whitney,thoroughbred racing history,Whitney, William Payne

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