By Beverley Smith for woodbine.com
TORONTO, March 17 – Always and forever, harness racing driver Wally Hennessey could hear the pipes a-calling.
The lure of his Irish heritage wasn’t at front of mind while he toiled daily for years at tracks around the continent, starting from the Charlottetown Driving Park in his home province of Prince Edward Island to Pompano Park in Florida. Or when he steered Moni Maker to become the richest harness horse in history – male or female, trotter or pacer – when she won the $400,000 Classic Trotting Series at Mohawk Raceway on Oct. 23, 1999. It was a momentous night on Canadian soil. She retired with earnings of $5,589,256.
Moni Maker filled his thoughts for years as she blitzed the world, showed her giant heels to any comers, and defeated the best in seven countries. One of them wasn’t Ireland.
But no matter where Hennessey was on the planet, he celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, if he could. There’s definitely Irish blood in his family. “For sure, I’m proud of my Irish roots,” Hennessey says. “Absolutely.”
Going to Ireland was on his bucket list. He had heard about how green it was there. How friendly were the natives. How much Guinness they drank. And he knew he would fit right in, like a glove. Talk with Hennessey for a few minutes, and you find he still has an Irish lilt, still cultured in Prince Edward Island. He’s been away for decades. Those who stayed have far more pronounced accents than he, Hennessey says.
Imagine his surprise when he was invited 2 ½ years ago to actually drive pacers and trotters in Ireland. A British harness breeder who knew of Hennessey’s heritage, put a bug in the ear of the Delaney family at humble little Portmarnock track on Dublin’s outskirts. The Delaneys had been seeking a “name” driver from across the seas to put an exclamation point on their little homey racing festival.
It was quite a request. Hennessey wasn’t certain that he could make it work. But then everything in his life fell into place, at the right time. In 2014, he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in Mississauga. And from Mississauga, he could catch a direct flight to Dublin. He said yes. He left for Dublin the day after he was inducted.
When Hennessey set foot in Ireland for the first time in his life, he found himself at the centre of an emotional Irish tale. Brothers James and Derek Delaney had started a race in honour of their youngest brother, Vincent, a lover of harness racing who had run in the Dublin marathon the previous October, who suddenly died of a heart attack. He was only 27. His family was distraught and this race for 2-year-olds was meant to keep Vincent’s memory alive. The brothers use the event to raise money for charity.
Hennessey was to drive their U.S.-bred Carmel Camden, a pacer, to compete in the fillies’ elimination event.
“I wouldn’t say it was stress or pressure or anything, but god, I hoped she at least qualified for the final,” Hennessey said. “It’s their race and if she won, it would make it that much sweeter.”
Like the fairytale it was, Carmel Camden did win her elimination heat for fillies, and qualified for the final against colts. “My biggest highlight of his visit was him winning a heat of my little brother Vincent’s race,” Derek Delaney said. “It was a memory I will never forget.”
Hennessey also drove a trotter that won, too, although Portmarnock doesn’t really favour trotters and there aren’t a lot of trotters around, although the Irish Harness Racing Association has over the past couple of years started to bring in French-bred trotting mares in foal, hoping to improve the breed.
Portmarnock is a half-mile track so narrow, it will accommodate only four or five horses on the gate. And the bends are sharp. There are no stables at Portmarock. No posh facilities. On an average day, a couple of hundred people would show up to watch.
While thoroughbred racing is immensely well developed in Ireland, harness racing is an expensive hobby in the Emerald Isle. At first sight of Portmarnock, Hennessey slowly turned his head with a smile and said: “Is this the track? We are going to race here, right?” It’s a little fair track. People race their horses right out of trailers, took care of them in their own backyards.
However, the Delaney days at Portmarnock are quickly becoming a massive event, the biggest harness racing festival in Ireland. It attracts visitors from around the world. When Hennessey was there, 1,000 people showed up. But the numbers didn’t tell the story of this Irish adventure.
“The passion these people have for racing is really unbelievable,” Hennessey said. “It would do your heart good to see the crowd and the way they cheer for the horses and the way they love their horses.”
The bar was full. The marquees were packed. Music and beer flowed day and night. The atmosphere was electric.
From the time he arrived to the day he left, Hennessey said the Irish treated him like a superstar. They picked him up at the airport. They trailed him to banquets. They took him on a tour of the Guinness brewery. The Delaneys took him to their farm out in the country.
“It was as green as you wouldn’t believe,” Hennessey said.
After the races were over, Hennessey stayed a couple of days to taste the Irish culture. He and a group started out by going to a restaurant pub on the renowned Temple Bar street for lunch. He revelled in the live entertainment. So talented. So lively. So Irish.
They intended to tour Dublin, but they found themselves walking into the next pub. And the next. And the next. At each place, the talent playing in the pub was better than the last. The Irish: they are poets and artists. There was music and dance. When the day ended, Hennessey hadn’t left Temple Bar.
But the racing experience quickly took him back to his roots in Prince Edward Island. It was the feel of the place, the love of the horse. “You kind of get a little numb when you’ve been doing this as long as I have,” Hennessey said. “You show up, like a robot.” But he found himself a part of something quite special. “It just made me feel like I was a kid again,” he said.
He found the people real. “This is what I have lost while racing at home,” he said. He re-discovered why he was in the sport.
Moni Maker had been the pinnacle of his life. She had changed it. But this trip to Ireland changed his life too. He vows he’s going back. The Irish and their gift of the gab, their love of the horse, their passion has done his heart nothing but good. “It was a lifetime experience,” he said.