Wednesday, 16 November 2016 23:46

Mike Hennessy is back where he belongs - on top

Written by Curtis Stock
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Mike Hennessy and Blue Star Jet in the winner's circle for the Brad Gunn Stake at Century Downs in August 2016 Mike Hennessy and Blue Star Jet in the winner's circle for the Brad Gunn Stake at Century Downs in August 2016

With harness racing set to return to Northlands this weekend, Hennessy has more driving wins than anyone still based in Alberta this year. He is so much in demand that he has a drive in all 16 races that will take place on Friday and Saturday. Two years ago few would have thought that was possible. Two years ago - addicted to opioid painkillers, other drugs and alcohol - Hennessy was homeless and living in abject squalor on the streets of Vancouver simply trying to survive anyway he could.

It would only get worse. It wasn't long before Hennessy found himself behind bars for three months. So despondent, so low and feeling so hopeless, he hoped he would never get out. "I was done. I thought I could never stay clean on the outside," said Hennessy, 33. "I wanted to stay in jail. I didn't want to get out. I called my dad and told him that," he said of his painful conversation with his father, Rod, who has been one of the most successful trainer/drivers in this history of Alberta harness racing.

"It was the lowest point in my life." Fortunately for Mike, a crown prosecutor convinced him that he should apply for bail and then get help. Reluctantly at first, Hennessy agreed and went to the Launching Pad Addiction Rehabilitation Society near White Rock, British Columbia where he spent 13 long months learning how to lead a clean and sober life.

"It was the best thing that could happen to me. I say now that I didn't get arrested; I got rescued. They saved my life. "I put myself into finding a better way to live instead of drinking, taking drugs and doing everything wrong." A year ago last November Hennessy completed his program and left the Launching Pad. In February - after an absence of two and a half years, he returned to the racetrack.

"That opening weekend I was a little anxious and nervous. It had been a long time since I drove a horse sober. I wondered if I would be the same guy out there. "It turned out that I might be even better." 'Might' is clearly inaccurate. Almost immediately Hennessy found even more success than he had demonstrated when he first debuted as a 20-year-old - ear marked for greatness.

"I didn't set the world on fire the first couple of years. But in my third year I broke some track records," he said of miles behind horses like Warrawee Flash and Doctor Ruth. The latter, Hennessy said of one of the top mares in Alberta at the time, "was the horse that really got me on the path to driving better horses."

So far this year Hennessy has driven 74 horses to the winner's circle. Other than Travis Cullen, who is now racing in Ontario, no one in Alberta has won more often. Furthermore, he has piloted those horses to purse earnings of $585,640. Other, again, than Cullen, who lived on another planet, has banked more. Oozing with talent, Hennessy said other than experience one of the keys to being a top harness driver is "psychological warfare. "It's a battle between you and the horse trying to make the horses have more pace left when they are tired.

"It's been an amazing year. It's unbelievable how the year has gone," said Hennessy, who has driven in more races (650) than anyone in the province - Cullen included. "To come back and have this kind of success… The support I've had has been amazing especially from the people who knew my story. "People really do believe in me."

Substance abuse has been part of Hennessy's life longer than he cares to remember. "When I was winning races in Alberta a decade ago I was using them. It started with pain killers. At the end it was heroin," said Hennessy, who now lives in Airdrie. "I did very well in Alberta but people always kept telling me how well I could really do if I straightened myself out.

"This year has showed me how right they were. It's been a career year and it keeps getting better. I've found a better way to live and started focusing on the right things. "I thought I had it all," he said of driving harness horses and getting high - sometimes all at the same time. But the drugs won out. "Driving harness horses was what I always wanted to do and loved to do. But I chose drugs. It's a sad thing to say but it's true. The drugs took a hold of me and I lost all focus on what really mattered.

"I spiralled down quickly. You think you are in control. But you aren't." After Stampede Park shut down in Calgary in 2008, Hennessy went to B.C. where he drove at Fraser Downs and where, just like in Alberta and despite his addictions, he became one of the top drivers. "Truth be told, the reason I left Alberta and went to B.C. was because drugs were more accessible there. And, I didn't have to see my family and feel the shame for what I was doing to myself and them."

Hennessy said escaping his demons was tough and it remains that way today. "It got to a point where all you think about is getting your next fix. Back then the only way you feel good is when you are using. "Like I said, getting arrested was the best thing that happened to me because I finally found the bottom. It saved my life." From jail Hennessy was able to find the Launching Pad, a non-profit agency serving the residents of British Columbia.

"They told me at the beginning of my stay at the Launching Pad that it wasn't going to be easy. "They said 20 per cent of people who come out of the program will be clean for the rest of their lives; 20 per cent will die and the other 60 per cent will be back on drugs and continue to do the dance of death. "Those are scary numbers and the Launching Pad is one of the best programs out there.

"The Launching Pad gave me the tools. Now I have to work with those tools on a daily basis. The Launching Pad is a program for living. It makes you look at yourself, what makes you tick and new ways to deal with it because the way I was certainly wasn't working."

As much as anything The Launching Pad also showed Hennessy that he wasn't alone - there are a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life that go down that path." Hennessy said he wouldn't have been able to escape that tango with the devil if it wasn't for all the support he got - not only from the other addicts but also from his friends and family.

"I was lucky because there were a lot of people that wanted to help me. John Chappell, Brandon Campbell and Jim Marino came to see me on a regular basis," he said of three other harness drivers. "Michelle Yates, a friend of mine in B.C. was also a big support. And my mom and dad were amazing. They supported me through all of it.

"I can't imagine what I put them through. Hopefully they can now sleep at night." Rod — Hennessy's father, said that of all the highlights of his storied career which includes winning over 2,800 races as a driver and close to 1,900 wins as a trainer, getting his son back was No. 1.

"The two and a half years that Mike was away from harness racing were very difficult - mentally more than anything. You watch someone destroy his own life and there is nothing you can do," said Rod, who is having a great year himself. With Cullen and Ashleigh Hensley both in Ontario, Rod Hennessy's 45 training wins are tops among trainers left in Alberta. "Mike always had the talent but the demons caught up to him.

"He got lucky. But he also knows that those demons can come back to bite him again. Once an addict always an addict," said Rod, 62, who, earlier this year, won the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association's Ron McLeod Award of Achievement for his lifetime of contributions to standardbred racing in Alberta. "It's like us with horses. You get addicted," said Rod, who, like his son, was born into harness racing given that Rod's father, Owen, was also a harness trainer.

"It's still a battle and something I will have to work on for the rest of my life if I want to stay clean," said Mike. "There is no cure. You are never recovered; you are always in recovery. "It's unbelievable how this year has gone," he said of winning races like the Brad Gunn with Blue Star Jet and Alberta Sire stakes with horses like Ba Bye Ceia Later as well as handing the reins of horses like Blue Star Maverick.

He was also chosen to participate in the Western Regional Driving Championship this summer at Balzac's Century Downs racetrack. "My life is better than it ever has been. For once in my life, I feel good about everything and the direction in which my life is going. "I don't understand why I'm one of the ones that made it out. But I'm glad I am. "I'm doing what I love again. "I'm back."

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