New President John Hendrickson’s Refreshing Ebullience = National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in Front.

 Besides all his other professional, social and philanthropic commitments, John Hendrickson has accepted the enormous responsibilities that come with the job title,  President of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.   I called Cady Hill the minute I received and read the press release sent by the Museum’s Communications Officer, Brien Bouyea because, frankly–it’s one of the best pieces of horse racing news that I’ve heard  in a very long time.  

 I met John Hendrickson in March, 2000, on my first day as CRM (Community Relations Manager) for the not-yet-built Saratoga Borders store.  The place was still being created–literally, bricks-and-mortar–so my first day at work was spent in  the Albany store, perched on a stool next to a stranger’s desk.  The phone rang.  Stranger answered her phone–handed phone to me with a quizzical look and said–“It’s…for…YOU…?”

  The caller was John Hendrickson, who would invite me to call him,  John, shortly thereafter.  He and his wife–Mrs. Marylou Whitney, Saratoga’s most-beloved resident and horse racing goddess–had heard about the store’s planned Saratoga opening in late June.  So,  much to my utter shock–my first call in this new gig was from John, about a proposed joint project…

Jeffrey L. Rodengen had written a beautiful coffee table book about Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney, the horse racing giant to whom Mrs. Whitney had been married for 34 years until his death in 1992.  The Legend of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney would be released internationally in November–but Mrs. Whitney had made an advance purchase of 5,000 books to sell.  The profit from the sale of every book would go directly to Saratoga Hospital for a new Cardiac Catheterization Lab.  God bless.

John suggested a meeting in the very near future, so a couple of days later in Bookmaker’s restaurant in Saratoga I met John and a bevy of powerful Saratoga women, all of whom had terrific ideas about the event we would create.  The plan was that Borders would host a book signing the day before Opening Day at  Saratoga Race Course in July.)   John, Mrs. Whitney and  the Whitneys’ children provided some amazing artifacts–actual possessions that had been special treasures to Sonny Whitney.  With great respect and a soupçon of shared diligence and anxiety, our Merchandiser and I set up as window displays in the weeks prior.)

On the appointed day in July,  Mrs. Whitney and John arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.  I counted over 40 mics and reporters, waiting outside.  The power couple graciously gave photo opps and smiles,  and answered questions before entering the store with me.  Then, Mrs. Whitney spent the entire afternoon signing every book that was purchased that day–smiling warmly and genuinely–shaking hands–then, signing yet-more books, which we set aside to sell on her behalf after the event’s end.   (God bless her–we knew in advance  that she’d be a trouper, and sit in the Cafe for many hours–so I created a tea party for her, complete with china, silver and cucumber finger sandwiches.)

The signing was a success–we sold many books.  Everyone left the new bookstore on Broadway with a smile, and a warm heart, and with even-more respect for Mrs. Whitney and her commitment to community.  (If it was possible to love her any more than we did, as a collective.)  

Since that day in 2000, Mrs. Whitney and John have been ever-gracious toward me–and always go out of their way to say, Hello, and give a a hug.  I’m still taken aback, that that event meant so much to them, 17 years ago–but this demonstrates that indeed,  they are the kind of humans who acknowledge the good intentions of others.  Seventeen years later, still I feel comfortable calling to leave a phone message, knowing that it will be returned.  

Sure enough, today John called back in short order, in response to today’s call in to Cady Hill.  I’d hoped to get a quote for this article, and had specified to the Assistant that it was fine if she or John wanted to email it to me.  I gave my email address to her, and moved on, to writing.

About 40 minutes later, my phone rang and it was John–ready to chat about his exciting new gig.  My recorder failed me, and my hand scribbled That-Which-Now-Looks-Like-Cunieform, trying to keep up with his enthusiastic speaking.  He was in no hurry to get this call done, and move on to other business.   And I wanted to hear all I could, straight from the mouth of the Racing Museum’s newly-minted President.

When I read Brien’s press release–I was actually excited about this wonderful news–and I’m still smiling as I write this.  Here’s why:

 Because John Hendrickson is one of the most intelligent, most knowledgeable, horse-loving and humanitarian people who graces our sport of horse racing.  I’ve been around this sport  for 57 years now, so I’ve met and observed thousands of insiders–and John is one of the few who (like his beloved wife)–gracefully and graciously has everything in balance:
There are many insightful horsepeople.
Many wealthy participants.
Some who put the horses and the horses’ closest friends–the grooms, hotwalkers and assistants–first.

But rarely do these three types come together, in a way that is real, authentic and oozes kindness.  Kindness which can shine forth only from clean and honest souls.  It can’t be faked.  (Truly, John and Mrs. Whitney are soul-mates, spirits attracted to each other by mutual recognition of the authenticity of the other soul.)

 I’m thrilled about John’s appointment because his honest and clear love for his wife–for horses–and for the good people who make this sport happen, 24/7/365–is an example that everyone in the sport should follow.  (John should write a book about how horse racing should be done, the RIGHT way:  he and Mrs. Whitney practice honest, good horsemanship every day of their lives.

They back up their words with action:  they’re Supporters of WHOA (Water Hay Oats Alliance), and speak tirelessly on behalf of horses and their connections.    (Their decade-long, nightly programs and meals for the hundreds of backstretch workers during the Saratoga meet comes from a place of selfless humanitarianism.   They gain nothing, whatsoever, from the thousands of meals that they provide every summer–except the ability to sleep at night, knowing that they’ve given love and joy to precious  souls who both need and deserve to be appreciated.)

  John Hendrickson’s appointment as the new President of the Museum and Hall of Fame, I predict will be THE single-best decision that will be made on behalf of the revered institution in the next 25 years.  The reasons are clear:  John’s energy, enthusiasm, joy and love of our equine athletes, of the sport and of her peopleall shone through in our phone conversation today.

Actually, I could hear his smile across the proverbial phone lines.

And I smiled all through our conversation, because I caught his joy.  I could hear the wheels turning in his head as he described his “…reverence for the traditions of the past, while being excited about the possibilities for the [Museum’s] future.”   The very-first thing he noted to me was that he was honored to be part of the big circle–that Sonny Whitney, himself, had been one of the Founders of the Museum and Hall of Fame–and was the first President.

Next, he expressed his gratitude for former President, Gretchen Jackson‘s three years of service:

“Gretchen brought her love for Barbaro with her, and did a wonderful job…I’m grateful for all she did during her service to this place, and to the sport.”

He noted that he was delighted that Maureen Lewi and Tom Durkin are serving as Advisors to the Board,  then moved on to repeat that,

“It’s [just] a great honor to be part of this Museum; we’re going to be respectful of the past, while…bringing in others from outside these walls.”

 This is the meat of the matter:   making horse racing’s shrine, our Museum–relevant, and vital.  Not just a dusty reliquary of artifacts–but rather, a living, breathing organism.  (Thus is the general populace’s opinion of most musea.)  He fleshed out this last part–that of stepping outside the doors on Union Avenue–doing the proverbial legwork of getting farms, owners and organizations more intimately involved–that they may embrace the Museum and Hall of Fame as being theirs–as belonging to everyone in racing, from professionals to fans.  And that technology can, should and will be used in new and exciting ways to make the institution genuinely connected to the heartbeat of 21st Century society–to fans–and to future members of our racing community.

John said something at the beginning of our chat, which revealed the depth of his contagious delight:

“It’s going to be a  heck of a ride, I can tell you, we’re going to have a lot of fun!”

Whoa.  Wait–this was my clue, from the very start, that John’s will be no ordinary horse racing Presidency.   Too many who hold authority in our sport save their exclamation marks for the final furlong of their horses’ races:  it is only in that last 220 yards that most of the well-heeled gentility in our sport let down their proverbial hair, and let the exclamation marks fly.  (“Go, Seabiscuit, GO!”)

But here was John Hendrickson, the shiny-brand-new President of the sport’s official Museum–of our Hall of Fameusing the word, “fun,” for God’s Sake–and exclaiming that we’re in for the ride of our lives.  How refreshing!  The words, “museum” and “fun”–again, not used very often in the same sentences–by anyone, in reference to any museum.

But John Hendrickson is a horse of a different color–a horseman and racing authority who brings to this heretofore-heavy, very businesslike, grown-up world stage–the innocent joy of a little boy who’s just met his first pony.  How long has our beloved sport needed a leader who shares his joy?  How long have we needed a racing authority who’s not afraid of exclamation marks–of exclaiming his love for horses, humans and racing, out loud?

If this reads like a fan letter, well, by God–it is.  I am one of the most rabid, enamoured fans of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and have been for many years.  I am an ardent admirer of several decades, of Mrs. Marylou Whitney, and of her beloved John Hendrickson.

And now–now I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the new President’s  contagious joy and drive for our Museum and Hall of Fame will move our sport onward, and upward.  And that these attributes and drive can have only a positive, ripple effect–and influence other Presidencies, other Boards, of horse racing organizations, everywhere.

Congratulations, John Hendrickson!  Congratulations, Museum and Hall Trustees!  Thank you to all on the Board who realized that John is a bridge–between reverence for tradition, and enthusiasm for the promise of the future–and for not being afraid of bringing on a visionary leader!  

Exclamation marks:  not just for the finish line, anymore.


Photo Credits:

Mrs. Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, at the rail:  thanks to America’s Best Racing.

Mrs. Whitney and John Hendrickson book signing collage, courtesy of

Mrs. Whitney, John Hendrickson and Whitney Stables’ lawn jockey, courtesy of National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Mrs. Whitney and John Hendrickson in crisp whites, courtesy of Daily Gazette.

Mrs. Whitney and John Hendrickson, red/yellow:  Talk of the Track.

National Museum of Racing, and National Museum of Racing logo, courtesy of National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.