Horse racing has a lot of peaks and valleys, but the one constant that people who make their living in racing have is the horses. Day in and day out, horses have to be fed and watered, trained and cared for, regardless of if you won a race or got beat, or whatever else is happening in life, the horses are there and depending on you.
Rod Hennessy recently celebrated his 2,800th win as a driver, which is a huge milestone for an Albertan, especially because he rarely catches drives, but prefers to drive horses that he trains. He started driving when he was only 16 years old, and inherited the love of Standardbred racing from his father. He’s also a notable trainer, and is creeping up to 1,900 wins. During his 46 years as a driver and trainer, Rod has worked with a lot of horses and seen a lot of changes in the industry. From his early ‘wild’ years on the “leaky roof circuit” in the early 70’s, when the Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds travelled to Teepee Creek, Grande Prairie and Peace River, when Rod and Thoroughbred jockeys (also lifelong friends and ‘wild’ young men) Jody Buxton and Elige Bourne and others loaded five or six horses into an International truck with the bike and all of the tack and gear and raced what horses they had on any surface for any size of crowd, to winning the first race at the brand new Century Downs Racetrack & Casino in Balzac last April, Rod has lived through some highs and lows!
When I arrived at Rod’s farm at Falun, Alberta he was in his coveralls in the barn with the vet, who was doing acupuncture on a horse who was a top 2 year old, but is struggling this year. Rod and I chatted about racing, his life, his children Kate and Mike, and his horses, and the whole time he was checking in with his stable staff about particular horses, and monitoring their morning training. With an infectious smile and twinkling eyes, he told stories about the good old days, talked about where he sees the industry can improve, and spoke about how the horses in his barns have kept him going through lean times, high times, marriages, moves, and many personal and professional challenges. Incredibly humble, he kept turning the conversation away from his achievement and success and talked about how many good horses he’s had the opportunity to raise and to train, how hard he always worked to try to beat perpetual rival and Hall of Famer Keith Clarke, and how proud he is of his son Mike, who will be representing Century Downs in the upcoming Regional Driving Challenge on June 26!
He estimates that he’s touched over 1,000 horses during his career, and when he talks about superstar Roaring Snortin (first 2 year old to break the 2 minute mark in Western Canada), amazing filly and family favourite Tyler’s Royalty, home bred Weekend Bernie (Alberta Sire Stakes winner as a 2, 3 and 4 year old with lifetime earnings of almost $600,000), Armbro Aviator (winner of Western Canada Pacing Derby) his eyes sparkle. Rod spoke about the program of nutrition and conditioning that he’s had to adhere to over the years to always get top performance out of all of his horses and he genuinely wants the best for every horse in his barn – even if it means finding a home for them with Performance Standardbreds or as pleasure driving and riding horses. Rod has a horseman’s practicality, and knows that with animals if it can go wrong, eventually it will. He understands that racing horses means working 20 hours a day some days, and that you have to be in the barn at 6 am to feed horses, train until noon, and that on race days you aren’t done until every horse is settled and happy back at the barn. It’s not a 9-5 job, it’s a life. And he has loved being his own boss and making his own decisions, even though he says “it can be a rough life, and you miss a lot of family events and milestones and it can be difficult to see your way out of tough times, but you have to try to remember to make the peaks and valleys level out and stay positive.”
It’s no shock that Rod’s email address includes the name of one of his favourite horses – Just A Ripple A. Rod travelled to Australia in 1978 and purchased the gelding and imported him to Alberta. The bay gelding had 174 starts, 54 wins, 34 seconds and 31 thirds and made over $214,000. Like many horsemen, Rod’s love of Just A Ripple A didn’t come from number of wins or most money earned, but from the horse’s personality and temperament. Rod spoke about having to learn to drive him the way the horse was comfortable, “he’d pull himself to the front and then sit there, and I had to let him do it his way even though I knew there might be something coming for us at the end”. He describes Ripple as being eccentric and weird, and a total character to be around. He had some of his best drives and exciting wins with Just A Ripple A, and also experienced one of his biggest lows when four of Rod’s horses, including Just A Ripple A, died in a tragic barn fire at Trout Springs in June 1985. Long after Ripple died, there was a shrine in the Hennessy household to him, and Rod’s first wife Dianne still has his halter in his memory.
Rod has won just about every race there is to win in western Canada, and one of his biggest thrills was the year he trained the winner, second and third placed horses in the Western Canada Pacing Derby at Northlands Park. He’s one of the few western Canadians who have had the honour of driving in the Little Brown Jug in Ohio - Rod went in 2000 with I Win. The one stakes race that eluded him was the Nat Christie at Stampede Park. He had a great chance and was in position to take the race in 1986 when a tiring horse ducked in and he clipped wheels with Fred Gillis (who was driving another horse Rod trained) and instead of getting the win and the place, both fell out of contention. It’s not every year you can taste the win of the one race you want, only to be defeated by a freak accident. Coming that close would make a lot of people bitter, but Rod just shrugs and says after an accident that if the driver is OK, and the horse is OK, then everything will be alright and they’ll move on to the next race.
Rod has had his share of accidents, and he tells a great story about being at the quarter pole at Northlands Park and then the world suddenly flipping upside down. The crash was so spectacular that fellow driver Don Monkman told the ambulance crew they didn’t need to bother rushing to Rod’s prone body on the track, because he was certainly dead! Neither Rod (nor the horse) was dead, and both were in the barn next morning, bruised and needing Banamine, but alive and ready for the next race!
Rod’s daughter Kate is one of his biggest fans, and she described her dad’s career perfectly. “Most people think that horse racing is the Sport of Kings, because that’s what the marketing people want us to believe, but horse racing is the Sport of Hard Working People Who are Dedicated to Horses. Dad had to sacrifice so much to achieve his success, and I’m so proud of him. It’s pretty exciting to stand at the rail with my boys and cheer him on. I’m so proud of his accomplishments.”
Rod won the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association’s Ron McLeod Award of Achievement this spring for his lifetime of contributions to Standardbred racing in Alberta. He jokingly calls it the “old person’s award” and once again turns the spotlight away from himself and speaks about how proud he is of some of the young men who have worked for him, who are now out on their own and achieving success and making names for themselves. One of his prodigies is his son Mike, who trains and drives at Century Downs. Mike knows that one of the most important lessons he learned from his dad (aside from how to feed and condition and drive a horse with good hands) is that success follows hard work. Rod’s work ethic is a constant theme for everyone who knows him.
With 2,800 driving wins and over $15 million in earnings, Rod smiles, his eyes twinkle and says that he wishes he had more to show for his success than some good stories! With Mike carrying on the family tradition, and a number of young drivers and trainers who he helped mentor over the years finding success on the track, we know that Rod has more than some good stories. He has had a lifetime of ups and downs, of peaks and valleys, he’s had the privilege of training some wonderful horses and he’s certainly had a life well lived! We’re looking forward to following up with Rod when he hits 2,000 training wins!!
- Rod in the barn Rod in the barn
- In the winner's circle at Stampede Park In the winner's circle at Stampede Park
- Early in Rod's career Early in Rod's career
- Accepting the Ron McLeod Award Accepting the Ron McLeod Award