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Born to race: Wally Hennessey continues remarkable career in the sulky


Wally Hennessey appeared destined to be a harness racing driver from a young age.

It was in his blood and all he ever wanted to do.

But it almost never happened.

Hennessey left Charlottetown in the mid-1970s for a job outside of the industry in Saint John, N.B., but he quickly determined it wasn’t for him. He made his way to the track in the Port City and a handful of years later was atop the drivers’ standings in his early 20s.

“I was in the barn from the time I was hatched,” he said during a recent visit back to Charlottetown from his Florida home. “I would always be peeking through the fence at my father racing.”

His parents, the late Joe and Shirley Hennessey, raised nine children from their Euston Street home.

The family name is synonymous with the harness racing industry throughout Atlantic Canada and includes Wally’s grandfather, Walter, who he was named for.

“When I was looking through the fence, I was envisioning myself being out there, just driving,” said Hennessey, 62.

He wasn’t much for school, as the pull of the track always attracted him.

“My education was right here on the grounds of the Charlottetown Driving Park,” he said, looking out onto the grounds and describing the differences from what people see today.

But his start in the business wasn’t as smooth as some might think.

“I was horrible,” he admitted, but “it’s probably the greatest thing that happened to me.”

Hennessey said he was putting himself and the 850-plus-pound horses he was driving in bad spots, trying to get through holes that didn't exist.

“You do have to be aggressive, but you have to be aggressively smart, not aggressively stupid,” he said.

Wally Hennessey looks at some of the photos of his family that adorn a wall at Red Shores at the Charlottetown Driving Park.
Wally Hennessey looks at some of the photos of his family that adorn a wall at Red Shores at the Charlottetown Driving Park.

Hennessey wanted so badly to be good, but he had to learn, just as anybody starting a career does.

“My father was probably the most well-respected horseman of his era in Atlantic Canada,” he said of the man known as Two-hole. “My father was a proud, proud person, and I was letting him down. I said if I want to continue to do this, wake up.”

He knew he could be better. He had a great teacher in his father and others he learned from at a young age. He was committed to not just getting better but being the best.

“You just can’t be mediocre. You have to be at the top. Mediocre is not good enough. The bar had already been set.”

Well, Hennessey has met and surpassed the bar.

He has been inducted in harness racing hall of fames in Canada and the United States and earlier this year surpassed the 10,000-win plateau in North America.

“It didn't come easy,” his brother, Jody, said. “They weren’t passed to him, he had to go get them.”

And while proud of the success his brother has had, he is just as proud of the person Wally remains to be.

“Wally is the same today as he was 25 or 30 years ago. He’s just happy-go-lucky.”

Wally left Atlantic Canada for Florida when he was 29 years old, with the backing of owners to go for a winter. He made a name for himself there, and Pompano Park became his home track.

“You don't just get to the top because they like your racing colours or the way you speak. Results, in anything, is what matters,” Wally said. “Another key is to stay hungry. Never be satisfied with what has happened. Drive on. Maybe the next one will be better.”

And that’s the way Wally approached win No. 10,000.

He enjoyed the night as the milestone came in the evening’s finale, but he didn’t rest on his laurels.

“I had to go right to work the next night and go to work on the next win – that’s my job,” he said. “I’m so happy and grateful for the accomplishment, but I want more. . . I haven’t stopped at 10,000.”

His success has led to other opportunities, such as being the guest speaker at the recent Prince Edward Island Standardbred Horse Owners Association awards banquet.

“Forty years ago, nobody would be inviting me to speak anywhere,” he chuckled. “Here I am 40 years later, and I am not only humbled by it, but it just makes me proud.”

He looks around the track and speaks glowingly about what the industry has done to promote itself on the Island. He stands inside the main entrance at Red Shores at the Charlottetown Driving Park and relives his past as he looks at the photos that adorn the atrium heading up to the second floor.

He points at pictures of his father and other family members and with guys he grew up with.

“You’re looking at history here,” he said.

As Hennessey reflected on his milestone victory, he thought of his parents and all they had done for him.

“He was a proud, proud man. As proud as he was of himself, he was more proud of us. Along the way, that’s something that drives you. You have that support behind you,” he said. “I had a mother (that) if you had done very well wasn't going to be patting you on the back but when you’re on the track dusting yourself off, she was the one giving you the hug.”

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