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Helen Hay Whitney

Helen Hay Whitney
Induction Year: 
2019
Born: 
March 11, 1875, New York City
Died: 
Sept. 24, 1944, New York City

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Bio

Often referred to as the “First Lady of the American Turf,” Helen Hay Whitney guided the ascent of mighty Greentree Stable during some of thoroughbred racing’s most glorious years.

 

Born in 1876, Helen Hay was the daughter of distinguished statesman John Hay, secretary to Abraham Lincoln and later Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State. In 1902, she married Payne Whitney, youngest son of political leader, financier, and racing family patriarch William Collins Whitney. Mrs. Whitney became a noted writer and published several volumes of poetry between 1898 and 1910 before taking an interest in thoroughbreds.

 

The first horse that was recognized as being owned by Mrs. Whitney was the steeplechaser Web Carter, whom she acquired in 1910. The following year, Web Carter won six of 11 races at hunt meetings. Other top jumpers followed, including Cherry Malotte and Syosset. Since her interest in racing began when the sport was under legal restrictions in New York, Mrs. Whitney initially favored steeplechasers, believing they were more sporting and presented fewer complications. However, in 1914, she campaigned her first flat racer, the multiple stakes winner Gainer. Her horses were entered under the banner Greentree Stable, a nod to the name of Payne Whitney’s estate on Long Island. In the early years, Greentree bred horses on a small scale in Red Bank, New Jersey, before purchasing part of the old John Hughes farm on Paris Pike near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1925 and later expanding.

 

Payne Whitney, until his death in 1927, was only peripherally involved in racing and always said it was his wife who owned the stable and farm. By the early 1920s, Mrs. Whitney grew the size of the stable and expanded her interest in flat racing. She campaigned her first champion in 1923, Untidy, who won the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes. A couple years later, the great steeplechaser Jolly Roger emerged for Greentree. Bred by Harry Payne Whitney, he was sold to Greentree and became one of America’s greatest jumpers, winning the American Grand National in 1927 and 1928 en route to the Hall of Fame. Greentree also won the Grand National in 1926 (Erne II) and 1937 (Sailor Beware). Cherry Pie, produced by the Greentree mare Cherry Malotte, was another top horse for Mrs. Whitney during this era with wins in the Jerome, Saranac, Nursery, and Long Island handicaps, and an American record for one mile on dirt in 1923 at Belmont Park.

 

The first stallions sent to the Greentree property in Kentucky were Chantey and Dominant, and the first to gain acclaim was St. Germans, sire of Twenty Grand in his second crop in 1928. Twenty Grand became prominent for Greentree as a 2-year-old in 1930 and went on to a Hall of Fame career that included victories in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Travers, Saratoga Cup, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. In 1939, Greentree bred both future Hall of Famer Devil Diver and the outstanding Shut Out. A champion in 1943 and 1944, Devil Diver won three consecutive editions of the Manhattan Handicap, as well as the Hopeful, Sanford, Brooklyn, Carter, and Whitney. Shut Out gave Greentree its second Kentucky Derby win in 1942 and won the Belmont, Travers, and Pimlico Special.

 

In 1938, Mrs. Whitney became the first woman to be the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honored Guest. Overall, she bred 79 stakes winners during her time at the helm of Greentree. Mrs. Whitney passed the stable and farm to her children, John Hay Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson, who went on to enhance Greentree’s legacy in the sport after her death in 1944 at the age of 68.

 

“It is not likely that American racing will ever have an owner with a more complete affection for horses, with less regard for the headlines and parties and monetary rewards that sometimes go with racing,” eulogized The Blood-Horse. “Mrs. Whitney fell in love with her horses, and it was only with difficulty that she could be persuaded not to fill the acres at Greentree with horses simply because she was fond of them. She preferred always to stay in the background, with the limelight on the thoroughbreds she bred.”

 

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