A conversation with Wally Hennessey
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Hennessey was born on Prince Edward Island, where he followed his father, Joe, and grandfather, Wal, into the sport. He made a name for himself in the Maritimes in the early 1980s, setting annual records for wins and purses, before traveling to Florida and launching a career in the U.S. that eventually led him to one of the greatest horses in harness racing history.
In 1995, Hennessey began a six-year association with the female trotter Moni Maker, who was Horse of the Year in 1998 and 1999 and Trotter of the Year in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Hennessey and Moni Maker posted many memorable wins together, including the Elitlopp, Hambletonian Oaks, Breeders Crown Open Trot, and three editions of the Nat Ray. Moni Maker retired with a then-record $5.58 million in purses.
Hennessey, who entered Tuesday with 9,635 career wins, has been inducted into both the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in the U.S. and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, as well as halls of fame in Florida, New York, and Prince Edward Island.
Last year, Hennessey won 335 times and ranked 27th in North America despite competing in fewer than 1,300 races. (He was the only driver among the top 33 to drive in fewer than 1,600). He is highly regarded for his consistency, which has seen him post a driver rating of at least .300 in 28 of the past 29 years. His lone miss came in 2001 when he finished at .295.
Hennessey recently took time to talk about his career with U.S. Trotting Association Media Relations Manager Ken Weingartner.
KW: You're having another good year and your career is still going strong. What keeps you going?
WH: I'm still competitive and still getting some nice stables to drive for. I feel good. I work every day with the horses. It was something I was bred to do and it's something I want to continue to do as long as I feel I'm not in anybody's way.
KW: When you're in front of everybody it makes it easier.
WH: (Laughs.) The racing game today, the strategies aren't quite the same as they were years ago. When you look at most racetracks, you'll see the favorites win anywhere from 32 to 40 percent. If you happened to be getting the ones that are favored, and sometimes they're false favorites, but if you're the lucky guy getting the horses that have a chance at 5-1 and under, you're in the game. Over the years, I've been fortunate to be one of those guys.
KW: How have you seen the game change and have you adjusted?
WH: I would say yes. When I first started racing, which was back on Prince Edward Island, there wasn't a whole lot of power. But over the years, yes, with the way that the tracks are and the breed of the horse, it's changed. There is a fine line between the worst horse in the program and the best horse in the program. There's a difference whether they can beat one another, of course, but as far as speed or times of the mile, you'll see on any given night the cheapest class on the card will go (1):52 and the top class will go (1):52. It's a fine line.
As far as adapting, I had to adapt. If you're on a favorite, generally you have a 40-percent chance of winning. So you have to put yourself into a winning position. Most times it means the horse has to be driven aggressively. Maybe in years past you could work out a decent trip with a horse and let somebody else dictate the fractions and still beat them. I believe today that if you let somebody else dictate the fractions and you're not in the right position, you can't win that race like you did years ago. You have to be in position the last quarter of a mile, somewhere near the front end, or you're not going to win. Not all the time, but the majority of the time.
KW: Have you become more aggressive or have you always considered yourself aggressive?
WH: Oh yes. I think I always was a touch aggressive, but I'm very aggressive (now). But it's not about me; it's about what I'm driving. Yes, I'm very aggressive; probably ultra-aggressive. But I'm able to do that because of the animal I'm driving or the stable I'm driving for that does a tremendous job. I'm just the guy that they choose.
KW: What do you most enjoy about doing it after all these years?
WH: It's the same today as it was -- the adrenaline rush. To be able to do this on a nightly basis, and the feeling you get when you win a race, that's really never changed. Whether it was a cheap race or a great race -- and of course a more significant race is better monetarily -- but it matters not to me. A win is a win. There is no greater feeling. Not many people get to have that adrenaline rush when you're doing what I've done for over 40 years.
KW: Well, you've had the highest of highs, that's for sure.
WH: Oh yes, that goes without saying. There was none better and there has been none better in my eyes than Moni Maker. Having said that, she made my career and she ruined my career. (Laughs.) I've said it many times, "How do I compare any horse to her?" When you've had the best, not that you don't respect other horses, but how many have come along that have been like her. She was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
KW: I'm just glad I got to see her in my lifetime.
WH: It was a pleasure. When we were going through those years you knew it was special, but you really know later in life how special it was. You guys, as the audience, were probably more in awe than the people involved right in it with her at the time. But after the fact, I think anybody that's ever had anything to ever do with her looks back and says, "Wow." Even though we always knew she was extra special, but it's 20 years later and we're still talking about her. Whenever there is a poll about the greatest of all time, her name comes up. Not that everybody feels she was the greatest -- I do -- but her name is definitely mentioned.
Having said that, I'm just happy that in my harness racing career that I happened to be the one who was part of her career. I'm sure everybody involved feels the same way. We were lucky she was with us, not that we were with her.
KW: Do you still think about her a lot today?
WH: Her picture is all over my house. (Laughs.) It was a special time for me. For me, she was my greatest of all time. You know Wally Hennessey -- whether you've actually met him or know him or what -- and you know him because of Moni Maker. You don't know him because he's won 9,500 races or because he's the leading dash-winner at Pompano Park. You know him because he was the driver of Moni Maker. That's plain and simple.
KW: You mentioned the wins, and you're coming up on 10,000. Do those milestones still matter at this point?
WH: When you reach them, yes, but when you're on your way to them, not so much. It's a number, and we're a numbers world, but I thought 1,000 was great when I reached it. And then 2,500 I thought was wow, amazing.
I remember when I was a young fella in Atlantic Canada, Clarkie Smith had won 1,500 races and I said to him, "Fifteen-hundred wins, I can't believe it. I don't even know how I'm going to get 1,500 drives." In my case, I've raced year-round for 40 years. I've driven in quite a few races and I'm getting chances to win. As long as that continues, I'm going. I don't care what my age is or where I'm at. But I will quit. You won't see me stop in anybody's way. I will quit before that happens. I'll know when it's time. It's just not time for me yet.
KW: I take it you'll be going to Saratoga again?
WH: That's always been my routine, even when I was doing well on the Grand Circuit and New York Sire Stakes. I believe doing the two things that I've done, between Florida and Saratoga, you couldn't ask for two better places to, not only to do your job, but to live. I've been in an environment that I wanted to be in. I did not want to be at the Meadowlands year-round. I was quite content with my career and the way it turned out.
KW: Has that contributed to your longevity and kept you fresh and enthusiastic?
WH: Absolutely. Not a question. I never get burned out. If you look at my statistics, any given year, I think the most drives I've ever had in a year is 1,500 or 1,600. Tim Tetrick won 1,100 races in one year. (Laughs.) You know what I mean? I don't know how he did it. I feel 1,500 or 1,600 (drives) were the most I could go in a year, and I thought I was run off my feet. But I'm competing where I want to compete.
KW: How did you settle upon Saratoga?
WH: It was just the way my life went. I came to Pompano in 1986 and I was just coming down for the winter. Warren DeSantis was the race secretary (at Pompano). That year, Saratoga was sold and Warren was hired as the general manager. We were done here around the first part of April. He started contacting me in February or the first part of March and wanted me to bring my stable to Saratoga. He thought my horses would do all right there. I said no.
He kept at me. Saratoga to me might as well have been New York City; I had no idea what Saratoga was. His final push, about a week or two before we were leaving here, was to tell me to stop on my way back to Atlantic Canada. That was it. It just suited my lifestyle.
If it weren't for Warren DeSantis, we would not be talking today. I was able to scratch out a living doing these two venues. And then the other stuff that came beside it, right? Warren was a big part of that. If he hadn't been persistent, I was going back to the Maritimes and I don't know what would have happened from there. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been heading down here again.
KW: It's funny how all those things work out.
WH: That's how life goes. Being in New York and starting on the New York Sire Stakes circuit, Moni Maker was New York-bred, so that's the whole ball of wax there.
KW: How is Dan? (Hennessey's brother, who has trained more than 1,000 winners despite losing sight in his left eye in 2002 because of cancer and suffering additional vision problems more recently in his right eye because of a detached retina.)
WH: He's doing OK. He's still having complications with his (right) eye. Over the last three or four years, his retina became completely detached so he's had complications ever since that, between being completely blind for a short spell to now his vision is average at best in that eye. But we still fool around with the horses. He was the leading trainer here last year at Pompano. This year when we came back, he had some more complications with the eye so we just cut back to around half a dozen horses. But they're doing good.
No matter what I was doing, I always had a little stable and he was the trainer. I go every day. That's part of my routine. That's good for me because it keeps me active. I like the horses. When you're doing good, it gives you confidence and when you're not doing good, you feel it. That's all part of it. That's the ups and the downs of the business.
KW: What else do you like to do with your free time?
WH: I'm a complete sports guy, but I really love hockey. As far as what I do, I guess the thing I enjoy most outside of this is if I can squeeze in a round of golf with a bunch of the guys. That's the competitive nature in a person. That you're out there on the golf course trying to win.
KW: Do you win?
WH: Not all the time, but I get my share.
KW: What do you shoot?
WH: I'm about a 14 handicap. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. It's OK; nothing great. I wouldn't be bragging about it.
KW: So you're not going to retire and join the tour?
WH: No, I'm not going to the tour. (Laughs.) Maybe as a caddie. That would be the only way.
KW: If you hadn't done this (harness racing), what do you think you would have done?
WH: I grew up in a harness family. When I went to school, I wanted to be at the barn. It was never about the future, it was just about today. I guess that's how I look at life now, for today. (Retirement) is coming, but I hope it's not soon. Racing, this is what I was groomed to be. This is what I spent my whole life at. I've never had another job.
I'm extremely happy. If you'd asked me when I was growing up if I'd have the career I've had, there's not even a chance. This wasn't even part of the plan. It evolved to what it was just because it happens. I just kept working. The work ethic has a lot to do with it as well. I just never stopped. And what keeps you doing that is the drive to get to the winner's circle. You're going to get beat way more times than you win. But I haven't accepted being a loser yet. I don't take losing well. I know it's part of the game, but I don't accept it. I don't say, "Oh that's the way it goes." No, that isn't the way it goes. We're going to try something different next time. I haven't lost that. I haven't been defeated yet.
KW: It's great it all worked out the way it did.
WH: I could never have imagined it in my wildest dreams, all the things that have happened to me in my life; to meet the people I've met. I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do. That's it all in one sentence. There it is. It's what I was raised to do. It's what I was put here for. And it's all I'm going to do.