The life and times of humble, beloved legend Wally Hennessey

The life and times of humble, beloved legend Wally Hennessey

May 22, 2021

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by Murray Brown

‘Moni Maker was my career,” said multiple Hall of Fame driver Wally Hennessey.

Wally, I know she was great and a once in a lifetime horse, but I would say that you’ve enjoyed an incredible career both with her in it and if she were not in it. You’ve won well over 10,000 races and the horses you’ve driven have earned $71,213,824 and counting. You’ve won several classics races including the Kentucky Futurity, The Woodrow Wilson when it was the race for 2-year-olds, four Breeders Crowns and the Hambletonian Oaks.

You have been the driving champion at just about every track at which you participated.

Dave Landry | Hennessey said driving Moni Maker, “was my career.”

Even though you haven’t been quite as active in the New York Sires Stakes (NYSS) in recent years, you still are the all-time leader when it comes to winning NYSS finals.

“(Moni Maker) was my career” in the sense that she differentiated me from all other drivers,” Hennessey said. “There have been numerous other drivers who were better than me. There certainly have been those who have won more races and earned more money than I have, but I take great pride in knowing that I was fortunate enough to be the only regular driver of a horse that has the world-wide fame and achievements of Moni Maker.”

Since we are focused on Moni Maker, let’s begin with her. How did the Moni Maker saga begin?

“I first drove her as a 2-year-old and I thought she was a nice filly. She was big and gawky. I thought she’d have trouble on the half-mile tracks, but she did alright on them. It wasn’t until she got to the mile track at Syracuse where I thought that she could be something special. She won that day coming a last quarter in about 27 seconds, which was kind of unheard of back then. That same year I was driving another 2-year-old trotting filly Monet Blue Chip for Brett Pelling. She was undefeated and really looked like the real thing. Going into her 3-year-old campaign there was nothing that indicated that Moni Maker would go 19 for 20 and become what she became.

“As fate would have it, in the first New York Sires Stakes of the 3-year-old season, both Moni Maker and Monet Blue Chip drew in together. Monet had been undefeated, so I picked her. Carlyle Smith the principal owner of Moni Maker at the time, was upset and told his racing manager and partner Jimmy Gianuzzi never to put me down on any of his horses again. By the way, Moni Maker won the race and Monet Blue Chip made a break. It was neither the first, nor the last time in my life where I’ve made a mistake.

“Again fate intervened. Brian Allen became her regular driver, but one night he booked off to drive somewhere else. Brian landed in the same boat as I was in. Carlyle didn’t want him driving for him again. Jimmy Gianuzzi mollified him somewhat and came to me with a proposition. Jimmy said that Carlyle would let me drive her but only if I committed to stay with her for the entire year. Although this was the first and only time in my entire career that I’d done that I made the commitment.

“For a few weeks coming into the Hambletonian, the Antonacci group plus Geoff Stein, David Reid and Harvey Gold were very interested in acquiring her. Sonny Antonacci very much wanted to own her. In many cases, what Sonny wanted, Sonny was able to get. Geoff Stein was the lead man for the group. He’d call me just about daily asking me about the filly. I believe that it was just before the Hambletonian Oaks that a deal was consummated. Bill Andrews was to remain her trainer for the duration of the season while I was to continue driving her. There was a huge, somewhat accidental benefit for me.

“John Campbell had two horses that he had qualified for the Hambletonian final, Act of Grace for Stanley Dancer and Running Sea for Chuck Sylvester. Chuck asked me to stick around just in case John picked Act of Grace. In that event he would like me to drive Running Sea.

“Most people remember the two horses Continentalvictory and Lindy Lane that finished one-two in that race, but few remember that Running Sea was third. From that point on, Running Sea was my drive. Continentalvictory and Lindy Lane went west where they somewhat in effect destroyed each other, while Chuck’s colt was the best from that point on. We won the Kentucky Futurity and ran the table through the Matron at the end of the year. Sometimes, you get lucky if you are in the right place at the right time.

“Then began the greatest years of my career. Moni Maker won numerous Classics races throughout the world including the Prix d’Amerique and the Elitlopp. I was the driver most of the time, but even when in the case of the Prix d’Amerique where it was wise to have a local driver, I was always included in the retinue, whether or not I was driving. I have never been, nor will I ever be treated as well as I was principally by the Antonaccis and Geoffrey and David.

“Her career ended in fairy book fashion. It was truly my greatest day in harness racing and I wasn’t even driving, unless you count a prompter. I hadn’t gone to Lexington that year. Geoff Stein called me and told me that they were planning to time trial Moni Maker under saddle with jockey Julie Krone riding. He asked if I would drive one of the prompters. Jimmy Takter was going to drive the other one. Neither of us had ever done that, nor had Julie Krone ever ridden a trotter against time. I was with Julie all that day. What a pistol she is. She was worried that she would screw up. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told her. ‘I’ve screwed up with her more than once. She’s smarter than either of us. If by chance we mess-up, she will cover for you.’

“All did go well and she set a world record. I recall asking starter Greg Coon if he would start the trial using the starting gate. Moni Maker was used to it as were Jimmy and I. It just might help to make things familiar. As I recall it, there was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at The Red Mile. There were many people who told me that they were wet eyed after her performance. I was among them.”

We could talk about Moni Maker for days. Let’s talk about Wally Hennessey.

“I was born and raised in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I’m one of nine, five boys and four girls. Thank the Lord, we are all still around. My dad as was his dad (also named Wally) were horsemen. Of the five boys, four of us chose harness racing. My brother John is a lawyer who just recently retired. I started driving at Exhibition Park in Saint John, New Brunswick. My wife Barb is also from Saint John and that is where I met her.

“We got married there and Barb went home to have our daughter Christy there so she could be with her family. All three of us are now dual citizens.

“I was a terrible driver to begin with. Calling me reckless would be an understatement. I was far too aggressive and ended up getting into lots of accidents. I gradually mellowed and realized that the direction I was going was not the way to go. I ended up with a fairly decent stable for that area; although probably not for anywhere else.

“I came up with the crazy idea to go race in Florida in the winter. It wasn’t the smartest thing I ever came up with, but it turned out okay. Fortunately for me, my owners could afford the sure losing proposition that it was bound to be. But they said it would be fun and going there to watch their horses would be a good excuse to escape the cold Maritimes winter.

“We moved to Florida in 1986 intending to race there through the winter and then return to race back home in summer. I did reasonably well at Pompano and gradually started to get more drives. We also upped our stock a little and got some competitive horses.

“My friend Warren DeSantis was the racing secretary at Pompano. He had just been appointed the general manager at Saratoga. After a whole lot of urging by him, he persuaded me to come to Saratoga for the summer and give it a try. If things didn’t work out, well, the Maritimes were not that far away. So, we went. I got lucky. I started to get good drives and lots of them. When the New York Sires Stakes came to town I was asked to drive some. I gradually built up relationships and started following certain stables through the New York tracks. For awhile, and still even today, that became part of how I was identified.

“I believe that I am still the leader in NYSS finals wins.”

Wally, you were successful wherever you went, you became the leading driver at each track where you competed, were you ever tempted to try The Meadowlands?

“Not really. I felt that I had carved out a good life for myself and my family. I would drive there occasionally and always felt welcome and never out of place when racing with the best. I just didn’t want the stress that I felt I’d be inflicting on myself by driving under pressure all of the time.”

It appears that the coming race season will be the last at Pompano. What will you do?

“I’ve heard that so many times and each time it proved not to be true. I’m very much afraid that this time might be the one, but we will see. One thing is guaranteed, I will not race up north in winter. I’ve considered several options if it comes to pass. I might try to get a few yearlings and work with them. I spent so much time around Stanley Dancer and I’ve driven so many young horses. I know I could do a good job with them. I could also go to work for one of the larger stables and ride for them. But, that’s a little ways away yet.”

You’ve driven with all of the greats of this and previous eras. What about them?

“There is one standout. That is of course, John Campbell. He did it all, over a very long period of time, racing in all of the major races primarily at The Meadowlands but in major events wherever top racing was held. Not only was he the greatest on the track, but off it as well. He personified what is great about our sport. He was as positive an example of what our sport is as you could dream of finding.

“There are so many other great drivers that I’ve known and competed with. There is so much of the unknown that goes into the making of a great driver. Among them are opportunity, good health and longevity. You don’t do it all by yourself. To a very great extent, your success is dependent on the support you get from trainers and owners. But saying that, I believe that for the most part, you make your own luck and opportunity.

“Through the years there were two drivers, Ronnie Waples and Bill O’Donnell, that I absolutely idolized and hoped to emulate. They might not have been the very best, but they were not too far distant.”

How about trainers?

Jimmy Takter

“Arguably the greatest ever. He has all the credentials. He is ultra-smart. He is versatile. Nobody worked harder. He realizes that all horses are not the same and can change his methods to suit a horse’s needs. Working with him with Moni Maker was one of the greatest honors and privileges that I’ve had. He was also kind enough to put me down on several of his other horses as well.”

Chuck Sylvester

“Not only a great trainer, but also one of the greatest people you could possibly find. I told you about him putting me down on Running Sea and keeping me with him when he had other options. I’ve also had the chance to drive some others for him. A true professional in every sense of the word.”

Fred Grant

“Fred may have been the first high-profile trainer to ever use me. I’m not certain of this, but I think my first New York Sires Stakes champion drive was with one of his horses. He had me drive Cambest a few times. I still believe that for pure speed, he is the fastest horse I ever sat behind. The scary part about Cambest was that he was going so fast and I never really knew how fast he was going.”

Joe Holloway

“Joe is another terrific guy and a great horse trainer. He used me occasionally. One day he called and asked if I would drive Mr. Suslow’s horse American Pastime for him in the Woodrow Wilson. Would I? Of course I would. He ended up winning and paid boxcar numbers in doing it. It is and will always be the richest race that I’ve ever won.”

Stanley Dancer

“Stanley was near the tail end of his career and was only training a small number of horses. I was privileged enough to be his pick to drive for him at Pompano. But even more awesome, was when he had retired and owned a horse or two, who did he pick to train them? My brother Dan and me. To me that is probably the greatest honor that has ever befallen us. Can you imagine? One of the greatest trainers ever, a man known for the meticulous way in which he managed his horses and stable, picking the Hennessey brothers from Prince Edward Island to train for him. If there is a greater compliment in all of harness racing, I don’t know what it might be.”

You are in the sport’s two major Halls of Fame, Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Tell us about that.

“Those are of course the two major ones, but I’ve also been privileged to have been installed in three others. I’m immensely proud of all of the honors that have been thrown my way. It’s a great endorsement of what the sport thinks of you and your achievements. But that was never my goal. Nor was it something that even entered my mind until I learned of them. My goal always was to do the best I could with every horse that had been entrusted to me. I haven’t driven them all in the best way. But I’ve always driven them as best I could at a given point in time.”

What do you want your legacy to be?

“My dad always stressed one word to me and my siblings. That word was integrity. The business doesn’t owe you, he said. You owe it to the business to conduct yourself in an honest, honorable manner. I like to believe that is what I’ve done. In so far as integrity is concerned, my record is close to spotless. I’ve never had a stain on it and that is the way it will always be.”

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