Discover Wanda Polisseni’s Kryptonite

Published: January 22, 2020 12:39 pm EST

Apparently, there is one chink in the amazing Wanda Polisseni’s armour. Ask her what it means to receive this year’s Unsung Hero Award from the U.S. Harness Writers Association, and you discover the kryptonite.

“I’m speechless,” the 80-year-old philanthropist said. “I don’t do well in these instances. I’m blown away. I don’t know what to say.”

After that, of course, the woman who defines class knew exactly what to say; and she said it with the dignity that has made her a beloved figure in harness racing this century.

“I never even think of receiving anything like this,” Polisseni said. “I don’t go about my days doing the things I do, thinking that it’s going to be rewarded with recognition. I know people appreciate what I do. I know my babies (her horses) all appreciate what I do. That in itself is enough for me. That’s what it’s all about.”

Lest one think that is false humility, Wanda is honest enough to admit that while she doesn’t expect awards, she does enjoy receiving them.

“I would say this one is probably one of my favourites, right near the top or at the top,” she said. “This is a great organization, a large organization. This ranks with getting a doctorate of humane letters from Keuka College. But every one of them is important. Each and every one. I don’t care if it’s from the local boy scouts or whatever. I’m appreciative of everything, although I don’t strive for that. I’d rather be under the radar.”

Polisseni was informed of her award by longtime friend Betty Holt, a former Unsung Hero Award recipient and the executive director of Wanda’s newest endeavour, the Purple Haze Standardbred Adoption Program in Oxford, NY. Their relationship dates back to 2004, when Polisseni first got into the racing game as an owner. Her two-year-old gelding, Smoky Bonz, won at Saratoga. Holt was involved in the breeding of the horse and visited the winner’s circle after the race.

A friendship was born.

“Whoever called Betty (from the U.S. Harness Writers Association), said it would mean more to me coming from her, and they were right,” Polisseni said. “Smoky Bonz is one of my all-time favourites, I have a huge oil painting of him in my living room and she foaled him. I worked along with her with the breeders and horsemen’s association and I knew without a doubt when I started talking about (the adoption centre) that she would be the best one for the executive director. She’s doing a terrific job. So yes, hearing the news from her meant a lot.”

Wanda Polisseni

The adoption centre got underway in earnest last fall and recently placed its first two horses with new owners. There are seven more waiting for new homes in the 20-stall facility and funding has been provided by Polisseni and numerous private donations, “some of which came from people I wouldn’t have expected.” The centre must wait between one and two years to petition for grants, but the face lift has been a typical Polisseni operation — first class.

“I wanted to freshen it up and add stalls so we’d have more babies available for adoption,” she said. “If I ever wanted to live on a farm again (which is where she grew up), I would love to live on this farm, it’s so beautiful. But that’s not my aspiration. I just want a lot of babies there and a lot of babies to be adopted out.”

Polisseni’s other babies can be found in her family-owned Purple Haze Stables, which houses 100 horses. Many have been successful over the years and she feels somewhat chagrined about that but, at the same time, unashamed.

“I started in 2004,” she said. “That’s not many years compared to some of these people, these trainers and owners that have been in it for 50 years. I feel a little guilty for the success I’ve had, because they are due. They are long overdue.

“But it is what it is. I’m going to take the wins and I’m going to take the losses. I’m happy if my baby comes in fourth or fifth and he’s done the best he can and he’s safe and healthy.”

Tending to her babies and overseeing the adoption centre is just a fraction of what makes Polisseni special. Showing an unheard-of amount of energy for an 80-year-old, the upstate New York icon currently sits on eight different boards, including The Finger Lakes Horsemen Benevolent Protective Association, the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program, and the Harness Horse Breeders of New York. Beyond the business, she is involved with the New York State Trooper Foundation, Thompson Health, St. John Fisher College and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

She refuses to be on any board in name only and makes a firm commitment to each one. Polisseni is the epitome of someone who feels blessed with what they have been given, and truly wants to give back.

She is unsung, because she will never sing her own praises. That will be especially true when she receives her honour at the February 23 Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Fla., where the speech will be short and sweet.

“Whenever anything like this comes along with all these organizations and galas, and it has many times in my years, they don’t want to sit there and listen to speeches; they don’t want to be inundated with speech after speech after speech,” Polisseni said. “Some people in the audience can’t relate to those experiences, so why make them have to listen to it?

“I might just say a few words. I’ve always done that. I always get up and tell the audience ‘I’m going to make your night. I’m only going to say thank you very much and that’s it.’”

She then added with a touch of whimsy, “That’s gone over very well at many of the galas I’ve attended.”

For more information about the Dan Patch Awards banquet, visit the U.S. Harness Writers Association’s website.


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