For the last couple of decades, driver Wally Hennessey has spent the majority of his year driving in Florida. The native of Prince Edward Island, Canada sets up shop at Pompano Park in Florida and helps his brother Dan Hennessey run his stable. Wally, though, is known as a catch-driver and has made a Hall of Fame career out of it. Beginning his career in the sulky back in the late 1970’s, Hennessey was a force from the get-go. Dominating wherever he drove, Wally has simply never had a bad year. While one of the top drivers in Florida on a year-in, year-out basis, Hennessey always travels north to compete in the summers.
Wally was known as the “King of the New York Sire Stakes” for a long period of time- the top driver in the Sire Stakes circuit annually for years. Wally enjoyed the winningest year of his career in 1995 when he piled up 419 victories racing in Florida for most of the season and in New York for the remainder of the campaign. This was the height of Hennessey’s thriving in Sire Stakes action. He was a Spa regular throughout the summer months, piloting locally when not traveling for stakes drives.It was during that year when Hennessey first piloted a young female trotter named Moni Maker. That marriage would be an historic one as that filly went on to be named National Horse of the Yearin 1998 and 1999 and Trotter of the Year in ’98, ’99 and 2000. Together, Wally and Moni Maker recorded victories in such top races as the Elitlopp, Hambletonian Oaks and Breeders Crown Open Trot. When Moni Maker retired, she was the richest horse in harness racing history with over $5.5 million in earnings.
While ’95 was Wally’s winningest campaign, 1997 was a career year for Hennessey from an earnings standpoint. The veteran reinsman piled up purses of just shy of $4.3 million that year, one that was highlighted by him winning an amazing four of the NY Sire Stakes Finals on the Night of Champions at Yonkers. He was truly the king of the Sire Stakes. Hennessey was inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY in 2007 and into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in ’14. Fortunate to stay healthy and gifted by never really losing any of his skills to this point, the 61 year old Hennessey is still on top of his game. The leading driver for the last several seasons at Pompano, Wally has won more races than any local driver during his time at the Spa in the last couple of years. This summer was much of the same for Hennessey who should reach the 10,000 win plateau next in 2019. With just shy of 9,800 career victories, Wally ranks 18thall-time among drivers.
In his storied, Hall of Fame career, Wally Hennessey may have not achieved a feat as impressive and historical as the one he secured on Friday night at Saratoga Casino Hotel. On a race card that featured just ten races, Hennessey piloted six winners. Impressive yes but historical- not in and of itself. Drivers have won as many as eight races on a single card at Saratoga in its long history but never before, one could certainly surmise, have those races come consecutively. It is deemed a “hat trick” if a driver scores three wins in a night. A “natural hat trick” consists of victories in three consecutive races in that evening. But a natural grand slam- well, I know I’ve never used that term before in my almost twenty years of calling races. Four in a row? Maybe that’s happened before, it probably has. But on Friday night, Hennessey put together back-to-back natural hat tricks, if you will, as he drove winners in SIX straight races on the card.
A feat that Wally, or likely any driver in track history, has certainly never accomplished before, winning six races on one card is obviously ultra impressive, if not unheard of. What makes this particular achievement all the more incredible and historic is that five of the wins came for the same trainer. Melissa Beckwith is set to win her sevenths local training title this season and fourth in a row. Enjoying a huge lead in the trainer standings entering last week’s action, Beckwith’s lead grew substantially after an historic Friday night. Hennessey has taken over the driving for the Beckwith stable in recent weeks and the combination has certainly proven to be a winning one. Though the feat of winning six consecutive races is extremely rare, it has been done. Our research was unable to confirm whether or not a particular driver-trainer combo has ever won five straight races on one race card but it isn’t an overly bold thought to say it is very unlikely to have ever occurred, anywhere. For a stable to have as many as five horses in on one night obviously happens but isn’t a common occurrence. To have five horses in consecutive races is even a bit more of a unique scenario. To win all five, with the same driver piloting each of the winners, is something that has probably never occurred.
Hennessey drove five Beckwith trainees to victory on Friday night but it was the win in the evening’s feature that was the standout. Pacing mare Happy Heart was a nominee for Filly and Mare Claiming Pacer of the Year in ’17 at Saratoga and on Friday night, the distaffer scored the first Open win of her career. Starting from the rail position in the $15,000 feature, Happy Heart got a pocket trip, riding the coattails of the favored Spreester before surging up the passing lane to record the career-best victory in 1:53.2. The win was the second in what would be five in a row for the Beckwith barn and six straight on the evening for the Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey who continues to creep closer to the 10,000 career win plateau. Wally drove for the final time of the year at Saratoga on Sunday afternoon as the sulky superstar will return south in anticipation for the start of the Pompano meet in October. What a night it was for Hennessey who teamed up with Melissa Beckwith for some history. And what a summer it was at the Spa for the veteran reinsman who has won at least 200 races in 29 of the last 30 years and is still on top of his game.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon at Saratoga and on Friday and Saturday evenings. First post time for the matinees is 12:15pm while racing under the lights begins at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!