Even the weather on that sunshine-rinsed Aug. 5 afternoon wasn’t as bright as the smiles of the Hennessy ‘Team’ in Century Downs’ winners circle. Rod Hennessy had just received the trophy for being the meet’s leading trainer and co-owner of the season along with his No. 1 client Lorne Duffield. At the same time Rod’s son Mike was feted as the meet’s leading driver. It was a complete sweep.
“Very special moment,” said Mike, who will begin his campaign for a fifth driving title when Century Mile opens its harness meet this Sunday afternoon. “My mom was there; my dad and his wife, my sister, my nephew, my girl friend and her daughter and all the barn help. It was unforgettable.”
“We had a helluva meet,” concurred Rod, who hopes to continue his success during the 35-day Century Mile meet that runs until the end of January. “Mike drove well, the horses stayed healthy, we didn’t have any sickness and we had a bunch of horses that fit down in Calgary and hopefully that continues in Edmonton. The meet started well; I had my horses ready: I was too stupid not to go out with them when it was cold. And it continued from there. There was a four- or five-week stretch where we seemed to be winning three or four races a day. It was a Travis Cullen run. If we finished third it was like we had a bad day.”
Mike Hennessy won 77 races from 422 starts to edge out Brandon Campbell by six wins. Rod Hennessy sent out 44 winners from his barn from 244 chances which was seven more wins than Kelly Hoerdt and 10 more than Keith Clark. And the $347,390 the barn won was also tops.
If those winner’s circle presentations weren’t special enough the Hennessys then won the $125,000 Gordon and Illa Rumpel stake for three-year-old fillies a few moments later when Stash the Cookies posted a big upset at 21-1. Getting a perfect two-hole trip behind Rockin Mystery, Mike tipped Stash the Cookies out at the top of the lane and wore down the pacesetter in the stretch to win by half a length in 1:55 2/5, a new mark for the filly.
Remarkably, given all the success they had, it was Team Hennessy’s only stakes win of the meet. “It was nice to win the biggest one,” Mike said of Stash the Cookies who is co-owned by his dad and Duffield. It’s cool when you upset the apple cart once in a while. Everyone then got to come back for that winner’s circle presentation.”
Blessed with a lot of talent, Mike, 36, said “Dad didn’t have a powerful stakes barn but when they were spotted in the right classes they won a lot of races.”
As for the key to his success, Mike said “Being patient. Letting the wins come when they did and not trying to force it.” A pure catch driver, Mike didn’t drive all of his dad’s horses. “Sometimes I picked off his horses; sometimes you’ve got to drive the one that’s better.” Those were rare though because most of the time it seemed like his dad’s horses were the ones to be behind.
“I think we’ll hit Edmonton pretty good,” said Rod, who now has over 2,000 training wins and 2,800 driving wins. “Like just about everyone we’ve been freshening the horses up since the races ended on Aug. 5 in Calgary.”
Typical of Hennessy’s horses was Marlons Magic. A four-year-old, Marlons Magic never finished out of the top five while compiling a log of 19 starts, four wins, eight seconds and three thirds.
“From opening day to the last day he was always right there,” said Rod, 65, who said Century Downs was the third of fourth time he’s been a meet’s leading trainer. “No idea really but it was quite a while ago. I’ve had some good years but win wise it’s been a while since I’ve won that many races,” said Rod, who started driving when he was 16 and was recently awarded the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association’s Ron McLeod Award of Achievement for his lifetime of contributions to Standardbred racing in Alberta.
The Western Canada Pacing Derby on September 15 with an estimated purse of $130,000 is the highlight of the meet but Rod, who has won three Derbies, won’t have a starter this year. “My three year old colts wanted to be no good this year,” he said. But he will have Stash the Cookies in the Sept. 15 co-feature, the Don Byrne Memorial, formerly the Northlands Filly Pace, which also has an estimated purse of $130,000.
The other big day at Century Mile will be the Nov. 2 Super Finals with four $75,000 stakes races for two-year-old fillies, two-year-old colts, three-year-old fillies and three-year-old colts and geldings. “I think it’s going to be a fantastic meet,” said Century Mile racing manager Matt Jukich. “We’re ready to roll. With the mile track there will be a big change in strategy from the five-eighths mile track we used to have at Northlands and what the horsemen were used to at Century Downs in Calgary.
“The racing surface was the star of the thoroughbred meet. It stood up to everything that was thrown at it with all the rain we had. We’ll have 300 horses on the grounds plus another couple of hundred ship-ins, so the horse population should be good.”
Fred Gillis, executive director of the Alberta Santadradred Horse Association, agreed. “We’ll lose some guys to B.C. at the end of September but the horse population is good. In Calgary we averaged 9.79 races per day. We had 470 races and 3,768 starters which meant an average of eight starters per race which is really good,” said Gillis. “You have to have full fields otherwise people will switch channels he said of both simulcasting and on-track betting.”
General manager Paul Ryneveld couldn’t agree more. “We had pretty good participation through the summer once the thoroughbred horses from B.C. came over and the two-year-olds started to get going. But overall field size was an issue with the thoroughbred meet. The field size on many days was 6.5 starters per race and I would like it to be 7.5 and above.”
Ryneveld also agreed with Jukich about the differences from racing on a mile track opposed to a five-eighths mile oval. “It will make for more exciting racing. The amount of movement horses can make it the stretch on a mile track is really enhanced and that’s more true for harness racing than for thoroughbred racing.”
STOCK REPORT - Harness racing will be conducted largely on Fridays and Sundays although the first week will see the wheels roll Sunday, Monday, Friday and Saturday. Post times will vary.
Post time for Sept. 1, 2 and Sundays will be 1:15 p.m. Post times on Sept. 6, 7 and 13 will be 4:15 p.m. When the lights are all installed - which is expected to be by the third week of September - post times for Fridays will move to 7:15 p.m.
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