SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Esteemed sportsmen Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and John Hay Whitney have been elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame as Pillars of the Turf.
Vanderbilt and Whitney will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with the racehorses Billy Kelly, Lava Man and Xtra Heat; jockeys Chris Antley and Vincent Powers; and trainer King Leatherbury on Friday, Aug. 7. The ceremony will be held at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., at 10:30 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.
The Pillars of the Turf category is designated to honor individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to Thoroughbred racing at the highest national level. Candidates must be deemed to have represented the sport with indisputable standards of integrity and commitment through disciplines such as breeding and ownership, leadership, innovation, philanthropy, promotion and education.
Vanderbilt (1912-1999) was born in London and raised by his mother in Lenox, Mass. He graduated from Yale and at the age of 21 took over his mother’s 600-acre horse farm in Glyndon, Md., named Sagamore. Vanderbilt registered his racing silks that year and purchased a 2-year-old named Discovery for $25,000. Vanderbilt became a major figure in the sport for seven decades of the 20th century.
Discovery, a future Hall of Fame member, began to emerge late in his 3-year-old season and was America’s top handicapper the next two years. Discovery won 27 races, including three consecutive runnings of both the Brooklyn and Whitney handicaps, and helped Vanderbilt become America’s leading owner in 1935 with earnings of $303,605.
While still in his 20s, Vanderbilt purchased and took over management of Pimlico Race Course. He grouped major stakes races on the same day to create buzz for the track and brought added interest and visibility to the Preakness through unique events and marketing of Maryland’s signature race.
In 1937, at the age of 24, Vanderbilt was elected to The Jockey Club. The next year, he brokered the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in the Pimlico Special. In 1940, Vanderbilt began running Belmont Park, presiding over New York’s transition from bookmakers to pari-mutuel betting. This was in addition to his duties at Pimlico. Vanderbilt ran both tracks until serving in the Navy in World War II. He earned a Silver Star during his time serving in the South Pacific.
Success on the track continued for Vanderbilt after the war. Following the success of Discovery, Vanderbilt campaigned champions Next Move, Bed o’ Roses, Now What, Petrify and his most famous horse, Native Dancer. Vanderbilt bred all of those champions with the exception of Now What. Bed o’ Roses and Native Dancer joined Discovery in the Hall of Fame. Native Dancer won 21 of 22 career starts and was a major star when racing first became prominent on television.
Overall, Vanderbilt bred 77 stakes winners. He was influential in helping the sport flourish on television and made regular appearances on broadcasts. Vanderbilt eventually retired from track management, but returned as chairman of NYRA in 1970. He also spent time as president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) and Thoroughbred Racing Associations (TRA). Vanderbilt was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1994. He died in 1999 at the age of 87.
Whitney (1904-1982), who was described by racing journalist Kent Hollingsworth as being “as close to royalty as American racing ever had,” was an owner, breeder and leader of the sport for more than a half-century.
Born in Ellsworth, Maine, Whitney graduated from Yale in 1926 then studied at Oxford in England until his father died in 1927. Whitney, known as “Jock,” worked his way up in the banking industry as a buzzer boy and statistical clerk upon his return to the United States to manage the family’s business interests.
Racing was always a passion for Whitney. Upon his graduation from Yale, he received two yearlings as a gift from his father and was elected to The Jockey Club at age 24 in 1928. Following his early success with the English steeplechaser Easter Hero, Whitney campaigned his first American stakes winners in 1931, running them in the name of his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Altemus. Whitney’s first major winner in America was Singing Wood, winner of the prestigious Futurity in 1933.
When New York racing was reorganized in 1934, Whitney was appointed to the state commission. That year, he called a meeting at his mother’s Greentree Stud near Lexington, Ky., and formed the American Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, the forerunner of the present TOBA. Whitney served as the organization’s president until 1952 and continued as chairman of the board until he became Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1957. Around the time he formed the ATBA, Whitney also purchased Old Hickory Farm near Lexington and renamed it Mare’s Nest. He stood the stallions Royal Minstrel and The Porter and bred two dozen stakes winners there.
Whitney accepted a captain’s commission in the air corps in 1942. While on an intelligence mission in France during World War II, Whitney was captured along with 45 others by German troops. He was being transported when he managed to escape by leaping from a moving train and navigated his way back safely to American lines 18 days after being detained.
Upon his mother’s death in 1944, Whitney inherited a controlling interest of 63 percent of Greentree, while his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, received 37 percent. Their previously separate racing and breeding endeavors were subsequently combined under the Greentree banner.
With the siblings continuing the family legacy, Greentree remained a major force in American racing and breeding. In 1945, Greentree bred its first $100,000 earner, Mesmer. Capot came along in 1946 and went on to be named Horse of the Year in 1949 when he won the Preakness, Belmont and Pimlico Special. Along with Capot, Greentree bred champions Stage Door Johnny, Late Bloomer and Bowl Game among a total of 91 stakes winners during the John Hay Whitney era.
The best horse Whitney ever owned was Hall of Fame member Tom Fool, a private purchase from breeder Duval Headley as a yearling. Tom Fool won all 10 of his races as a 4-year-old in 1953, including the Metropolitan, Suburban, Brooklyn, Whitney and Carter handicaps, as well as the Pimlico Special, to be named Horse of the Year. Tom Fool’s victories in the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn secured what was known as the Handicap Triple Crown, which had not been won since Whisk Broom II in 1913. Tom Fool went on to sire more than 30 stakes winners, including Buckpasser, Tim Tam and Tompion.
As well as being a prominent owner and breeder, Whitney served as a steward in The Jockey Club and was a central figure in the establishment of the Greater New York Association in 1955. In 1956, he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a role he held through 1961. Along with his racing and political interests, Whitney invested heavily in the New York Herald-Tribune and served as its publisher from 1961 through 1966. He was also involved in filmmaking as the financier of several major films, including “Gone With the Wind.”
Stage Door Johnny, bred and owned by Greentree, won the 100th edition of the Belmont Stakes in 1968. He became the fourth Greentree runner to win the Belmont, joining Twenty Grand (1931) and Shut Out (1942) from the Helen Hay Whitney era and Capot (1949).
Upon Joan Whitney Payson’s death in 1975, her stake in Greentree passed to her husband, Charles Shipman Payson. Whitney bought out that interest in 1980 to obtain sole ownership of Greentree. He died two years later at the age of 77.
A committee of racing experts and historians, under the guidance of chairman D.G. Van Clief, comprise the Pillars of the Turf Selection Committee: Van Clief, Edward L. Bowen, Christopher Dragone, Jane Goldstein, Ken Grayson, Jay Hovdey, G. Watts Humphrey, Bill Marshall, Leverett Miller, Bill Mooney, Mary Simon, Michael Veitch and Gary West.
Check our web site at www.racingmuseum.org.