Mike Hennessy walked on water, made elephants disappear and solved a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded Saturday afternoon at Northlands. One of the most talented harness drivers in the business, Hennessy won both of Northlands most prestigious races of the year taking both the $125,000 Don Byrne Memorial for three-year-old fillies with Cusdmagicdragon and then following up with a victory with Cheddar Jack in the Western Canada Pacing Derby presented by Boston Pizza, a race for three-year-old colts and geldings which also carried a $125,000 purse.
“He had a day that most drivers can only dream about,” said the man who knows that as well as anybody - his father, Rod, who has driven the winners of 2,826 races in an enviable career in Alberta. On paper and at first blush one might look at the results and shrug their shoulders given that both horses were favourites - Cusdmagicdragon returning $3.80 to win and Cheddar Jack an even bigger favourite paying $3.20.
But you had to have either been there or watched the replays to fully appreciate what Hennessy, Northlands leading driver, accomplished. “I don’t think there’s another driver out here that could have won with Cusdmagicdragon given the way she was bearing in so badly down the stretch that Mike had both of his hands on the right line. You have no idea how tough that is,” said his dad shaking his head in amazement.
But that was almost nothing compared to what he did in the Derby weaving his way in and out and out of traffic and appearing to be hopelessly boxed in down the backstretch. “There was a lot of stick handling going on,” said Mike after the win with Cheddar Jack, who his trained by Rod and co-owned with his stepmother Diane and Lorne Duffield, who owns several Boston Pizza franchises. “I was going to go three wide but all of a sudden the two leaders left the rail open for me so I took it.
“Lucky.” Not really. “Talent,” corrected Rod. “He’s always been a natural talent; he’s a magician out there.”
Once clear Cheddar Jack rolled on to a six-and-a-quarter length win in 1:55 1/5. After Mike won the Don Byrne Memorial with Cusdmagicdragon, one of four horses leading trainer Kelly Hoerdt had, as usual, carefully and strategically qualified for the race, he called it his “biggest victory of his career.” He was then almost lost for words after two races later when he took the Derby as well.
“Amazing,” he said. “I want to thank the Lord for allowing me just to be in a position to win both of those races. These are the two most prestigious races in Alberta. To win both of them… incredible really.”
The story of how Duffield and Diane Hennessy got Cheddar Jack in the first place at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania yearling sale is pretty ‘incredible’ too. “Lorne likes pretty horses. He was watching the sale on a video feed back at his home in Edmonton and he spotted Cheddar Jack in the background waiting in the wings to go into the sales ring,” said Diane, who was on the phone with Duffield. “When he saw this pretty horse with a white face he told me to tell Rod to take a look at him.”
But there wasn’t time. “I never did see the horse before he got into the sales ring,” said Rod. “I had a quick look at his pedigree, liked what I saw and started bidding. “Fortunately I was able to get him for $20,000.” With Saturday’s win worth $62,500, Cheddar Jack has now won $179,889.
“He’s just a real solid race horse. He’s also a lucky horse. We were lucky to buy him, lucky to win the Derby and lucky to win the $125,000 Ralph Klein in Calgary,” said Rod, the latter a reference to getting the victory after a disqualification to Serge Masse’s Better Watch Out - a result that is still under appeal by Masse.
There was also an inquiry into Saturday’s Derby with Nathan Sobey, the trainer and driver of Mortgage My Villa, who ended up fourth, claiming foul for interference down the muddled backstretch when the brutally fast early pace of :26 4/5 for the first quarter and :55 seconds to the half just as quickly started to collapse.
The judges, however, let the result stand. “I wanted the judges to look at it,” said Sobey. “There was a lot going on. More than anything I was protecting the public. I wanted to show the public that I wasn’t just rolling over especially in a race as big as this one. “Congratulations to the Hennessys.”
While Cheddar Jack has now won the Derby, the Ralph Klein and the $50,000 Brad Gunn - and with his 9th win in 19 starts this season clearly stamping himself as the top three-year-old of the year - Rod said it wasn’t always an easy path. “He was racing half poor this spring and he doesn’t like to train at all. I had him go eight-to-nine rounds and then step it up the last couple of rounds. Ever since then he’s been a different horse.”
Don Byrne Memorial winner Cusdmagicdragon, on the other hand, has pretty much been the same horse all season with Saturday’s 1:55 4/5 win her sixth of the year in 13 starts. In those 13 starts Cusdmagicdragon, a home-bred owned by Hoerdt and Blair and Erma Corbeil, has only been out of the top three just once.
“Great trip,” said Mike Hennessy, who took cover behind You Talk Too Much down the backstretch, tipped three wide around the final turn and then marched on to a narrow quarter-length over the furiously charging Bearcat Josi, who had to rally from eighth place after drawing post position No. 7.
You Talk Too Much finished third. “I was glad to see You Talk Too Much race a lot better than she did in the elimination,” Mike said referring to You Talk Too Much’s fifth-place finish in one of two elimination heats last weekend.
“You Talk Too Much raced big (Saturday) and carried me close to the leaders. If (Cusdmagicdragon) wouldn’t have gotten on one line so badly down the stretch she would have won a lot easier than she did. It was an unbelievable afternoon.”
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