07/24/2015 3:14PM

Hall of Fame: Whitney built stable, fortune

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
John Hay Whitney is among this year's Hall of Fame inductees in the Pillars of the Turf category.

Through much of the 20th century, the name “Whitney” was synonymous with the very best of Thoroughbred racing. On Aug. 17, 1904, John Hay Whitney was born into this family of racing royalty – and into one of the largest private fortunes in America, amassed from oil, railroads, and tobacco – as the son of Greentree Stable founder Helen Hay Whitney and the paternal grandson, nephew, and cousin, respectively, of leading American owners William Collins Whitney, Harry Payne Whitney, and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. “Jock,” as he came to be known, capably picked up the banner in his own right while still in his 20s.

Whitney hit the ground running at age 22 when his father, Payne, gifted him a pair of racehorses. Racing would soon become one of his driving passions. Fiercely competitive in all areas of life – on a golf course, in a rowing skiff, and on the polo field, where as a six-goal player he competed for several national championship teams – within a few years the young sportsman was campaigning a European-based stable of top steeplechasers, including the great Easter Hero.

During the 1930s, Whitney established his own breeding operation outside of Lexington, Ky., at Mare’s Nest Farm, where beginning in 1931 he stood future leading sire The Porter and bred more than 25 stakes winners. In 1935, when fellow Bluegrass horseman Hal Price Headley fretted over funding for his proposed dream track of Keeneland, Whitney is said to have told him: “Go ahead with your plans. I’ll provide what you can’t raise.” Headley would later credit Jock Whitney with the very existence of Keeneland.

In 1944, Whitney temporarily set aside home duties to serve as an Army Air Force colonel in France and that summer made global headlines when captured and held as a prisoner of war until staging a dramatic escape after 18 days. Back safely in the states and upon the death of his mother later that year, Whitney inherited her famed Greentree Stable and Stud along with his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, and smoothly merged his own Mare’s Nest operation into it. Together, brother and sister would race more than 100 additional stakes winners .

Greentree enjoyed a long heyday under the stewardship of Jock Whitney, peaking in 1951 when it topped all North American owners by money earned. The stable’s marquee runner during the mid-1940s was the homebred future Hall of Famer Devil Diver; in the early 1950s, it was another eventual Hall of Fame champion in Tom Fool, whom Whitney acquired privately as a yearling and who went on to become 1953 Horse of the Year and, more importantly, an influential American progenitor. Notable runners bred by Greentree and raced in the famed pink and black silks during Jock Whitney’s years at the helm included 1949 dual classic-winning Horse of the Year Capot, 1968 champion and Belmont Stakes winner Stage Door Johnny, female champion Late Bloomer, and grass star Bowl Game, plus high-class racehorses/sires The Axe II and Stop the Music. Whitney, alone and in tandem with Greentree, is credited with having bred 132 stakes winners.

Jock Whitney’s involvement as an industry leader was deep and lasting. He helped create the New York Racing Association; was a founder of the American Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, a forerunner to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association; was a longtime Jockey Club steward; president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations; a director of Saratoga’s Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses; first president of the Grayson Foundation; and served eight years on the New York State Racing Commission. Along the way, he found time to establish himself in the broader world as a noted philanthropist and successful venture capitalist (including an early investment in Pan American Airways), while funding the making of the motion picture “Gone With the Wind,” serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Dwight Eisenhower, and amassing a fortune estimated at $200 million at the time of his death on Long Island in 1982, at age 77.

Whitney’s New York Times obituary aptly described him as “a sportsman, investor, publisher, philanthropist, political mover, and ambassador, who hated to lose at anything.”