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Alfred Wright
September 04, 1961
Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, born to wealth and position, has applied an extraordinary competitive sense to a wide variety of activities—from polo and horse racing to mining and movie making. Here is the story of a rich boy who made good
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September 04, 1961

Sonny Whitney: A Success In Spite Of His Money

Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, born to wealth and position, has applied an extraordinary competitive sense to a wide variety of activities—from polo and horse racing to mining and movie making. Here is the story of a rich boy who made good

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William C. Whitney, C.V.'s grandfather and the founder of the Whitney fortune, largely through his interests in the New York City street-railway system, had a dramatic political career. He spent a lot of his time fighting Tammany Hall, helped unseat Boss Tweed and eventually became Secretary of the Navy in Grover Cleveland's Cabinet. Harry Payne Whitney, in his turn, was one of the major financial supporters of Al Smith.

Once, when C.V. was a youngster, he heard his mother and father arguing over his future. "My father was saying he wanted me to be a great athlete, and my mother was saying she wanted me to be a concert pianist. 'Over my dead body,' my father said. I was never a great athlete nor a concert pianist, but I feel in a way that I have satisfied both their desires. My work in moving pictures and my participation in such things as the opera and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyo. have helped to carry on the artistic traditions of my family, and I have always tried to lead an active life in sport—or as much so as I have had time for."

Whitney can indeed look back on a very full life as a sportsman—a tackle on the Groton School football team, a bow oarsman on the Yale varsity crew, a fox hunter, a deep-sea sailor, a six-goal polo player, a skier, a fisherman, a huntsman, an excellent lawn-tennis player and a naturalist with serious credentials. And, of course, there is his Thoroughbred racing stable.

One day recently, Whitney took me on a tour of his Lexington farm, which is impressively functional with its dark-brown rail fences dividing the lush green pasturelands. He pointed out the small cemetery, where the farm's most celebrated Thoroughbreds are buried with such modest inscriptions on the headpiece as:



Whitney drove his gray, 10-year-old Mercedes convertible past the acres of tobaccoland that he leases out to a local farmer on a share-cropping basis and along a road that divides his own farm from Greentree Stud, the adjoining farm of his cousins, Jock Whitney and Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson. "If you look through those trees," he said, "you can probably see Tom Fool, who is Green-tree's best sire right now. I've had several seasons to him, and one of them produced Tompion."

We then drove past the stallions' barn, and Whitney stopped the car so we could get out and look at a proud old sway-backed gray stallion who was grazing in a nearby paddock. This was the great Mahmoud, who won the Epsom Derby in 1936 for the Aga Khan and in doing so set a stakes record that still stands. Whitney bought him three years later for $80,000, and in 20 years at stud on Whitney Farm he produced as many distinguished racing and brood mares as any other sire in American Thoroughbred records, although, for some genetic mystery, he never produced a truly first-class colt.

Mahmoud, aged 28, is now in retirement and enjoying the leisure of his autumn years. His three principal successors are in the adjoining paddocks. One is Fisherman, the little brown horse who won the Washington, D.C., International. Another is Mount Marcy, one of the better Whitney racers of recent years, and the third is Counterpoint, a large chestnut 13-year-old, who is just beginning to be recognized as a successful sire. Five of the top seven Whitney money winners last year were Counterpoints. "One of the significant things of the past few years on this farm," he explained as he examined this stallion with pride, "is Counterpoint's new importance as a sire. He went from absolutely no recognition at all during his first five years at stud to 10th on the list of winning sires last year, and he now has 23 horses running."

As we drove on, we could see several dozen mares and their weanlings grazing in the brown-fenced pastures on either side of the road—the 1961 crop of Whitney Thoroughbreds. "Do you notice how many of those mares are gray?" Whitney inquired, and, sure enough, almost half of them were. "You wouldn't see that anywhere else in the world," he said. "Those are Mahmoud mares, and the strain of gray in him is so strong that he has passed it on to many of his mares."

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