Mar 25,2017Stephanie Tang
It’s a trivia question for die-hard harness racing fans: before the start of Century Downs’ season, how many career driving wins did Mike Hennessy have?
An hour before post-time on March 18, Hennessy—sporting a thick, bushy beard that grew over the winter meet at Northlands Park—admitted that he didn’t know the answer himself. Statistics have never been at the front of the horseman’s mind. It’s always been one race at a time, one horse at a time, one day at a time.
Still, it’s hard to argue with that method. The answer to the trivia question is 499 wins.
“Good things are going to come,” he said before the start of the races. “It should be a strong group. I’ve got some good horses.”
Those words would turn out to be prophetic. With his name written down for all 10 races, it looked favorable that the horseman would pick up his 500th win sometime before the day was over. As it turned out, he didn’t need much time to get the job done.
Driving three-year-old filly Authentic Pizzazz in the first race, Hennessy trailed last through stretches of 30:3, 1:01.4, and 1:32.2 before swinging out four-wide as the field came into the home stretch. With the track clear, Authentic Pizzazz thundered past front runners Double Loop and Cenalta Shade, claiming the race in 2:06.3.
Getting 500 driving wins isn’t a huge achievement in the horse racing world—1,000 wins is the milestone—but the significance isn’t rooted in the number; it’s in the journey he took to get there.
Two and a half years ago, personal hardships took their toll on Hennessy and forced him from a promising career. In what he described as the lowest point of his life during an interview with Standardbred Canada, he said there was a point when he wasn’t sure whether he would ever get back to the racetrack again.
Anyone who watched Hennessy on March 18 would be hard-pressed to say that he didn’t belong there. He picked up three wins, two places, and one show. It would have been four wins if not for a pesky driver by the name of Rod Hennessy, who edged him out by one-tenth of a second in the ninth race.
His phenomenal performance is an extension of what fans saw during the 2016 season, in which Hennessy had a career year and cemented himself as one of Alberta’s top driver/trainers. 74 horses found the winner’s circle with him in the sulky, amounting to purse money of $585,640—
second only to now Ontario-based driver Travis Cullen.
But for those who know the horseman, and have worked with him and trained with him, his comeback is less of a surprise than an inevitability—even if, according to some, it took him a while to get there.
“It’s late,” quipped Rod Hennessy, of his son’s 500 wins, letting off a booming laugh. “But I’m proud of where he came from.”
“All around, he’s a great horseman,” added trainer Chris Lancaster, who works with Rod and Mike. “He’s taught me so much about horsemanship.”
It’s a complete turnaround for Hennessy, who admitted during the Standardbred Canada interview that fighting his demons will be a lifelong battle. If his statistics are any indication, he’s facing that battle with confidence and poise, both of which have shown on the racetrack.
“His demeanour is very calm and he doesn’t seem to let a whole lot stress him out,” said Rod. “To be a good driver you’ve got to have talent and calmness, and he’s
developed that over many, many years.”
Driver/trainer Brandon Campbell, who has seen more of Hennessy than most—the two grew up together both on and off the racetrack—has no trouble placing his childhood friend right in the elite circles for talent.
“As far as I’m concerned, me and him, I don’t think there’s any difference. I think he’s every bit as good as me and I think I’m every bit as good as him. It’s nice to see. I just want to congratulate him. Like I said, Mikey, he had a little bit of a thing or (else) I think he’d be right up there with me for wins. I’m really happy to see him finally get back and I think it’s going to be nothing but more and more and more (from him).”
Hennessy will be back in the sulky this weekend, picking up 14 drives out of 16 races.