Few people have been inducted into more Halls of Fame than Wally Hennessey. Aside from being one of the most successful reinsmen in the history of harness racing, he is also one of the most pleasant and down-to-earth guys one may ever meet.
It’s no wonder that Hennessey has been enshrined in both the (U.S.) Harness Racing Hall of Fame and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. In addition, he has been feted by the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame, the Florida (USHWA) Hall of Fame, the Prince Edward Island Sports Hall of Fame, and the Prince Edward Island Wall of Fame at Red Shores Racetrack & Casino in Charlottetown.
A few weeks from now, Hennessey will add another title to his long list of accomplishments. When the Monticello-Goshen Chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association holds its 63rd annual Awards Banquet on Sunday, Dec. 11, Hennessey will receive the chapter’s highest honour, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Walter "Wally" Hennessey, a Prince Edward Island native, comes from a family with a long history in harness racing. Born October 4, 1956, he is one of the nine children of Joe and Shirley Hennessey. His father Joe, considered to be one of the finest horsemen in the sport, and his grandfather Wal encouraged Wally to become interested in Standardbreds at an early age.
In the early 1980s, Hennessey began to re-write the Maritime harness racing record books and then moved to the U.S. in 1986 to ply his trade in Florida and then New York. He has posted multi-million dollar seasons nearly every year since and is currently 10th on the all-time dash win list with 11,442 victories lifetime and is seventh among active drivers. He has amassed $76.4 million in career earnings.
Having won races across many continents and maintained his demand as a catch-driver through numerous decades, Hennessey has continued to credit others with his success.
“Any time you can reach a milestone like this, it’s an accomplishment,” Hennessey said from the Pompano winner’s circle in 2008. “I’ve had many opportunities from a lot of good people and you don’t stand here with 7,000 races won having done it alone.”
Eight years ago, Saratoga Harness hosted ‘Wally Hennessey Night,’ complete with the largest group photo in the history of the harness track or perhaps any track. Last year, his memoir, the "Wally: Driven to Win" book was published, with 232 pages dedicated to his live, his passion and to his dedication to the sport he loves.
Despite being 66 years young and competing against guys less than half his age, Hennessey has secured 336 victories this year alone, earning more than $3 million while maintaining a very respectable .389 UDRS. He was once known as the “King of the New York Sire Stakes,” where in 1992 at Buffalo Raceway, he won seven NYSS events, including a track-record six in a row.
While driving all around New York State this season and training a small stable at Saratoga over the summer and autumn months, Hennessey had to switch gears recently and return south. Duty called and Hennessey flew home to South Florida where he was listed to drive in six of eight Florida Sire Stakes last Saturday (Nov. 12) at Sunshine Meadows. He won half of those events.
Perhaps best known for his competitive and consistent driving abilities, as well as his association with the champion trotting mare Moni Maker, Hennessey’s love of Florida harness racing is not far behind. When Pompano closed earlier this year, Hennessey said, “It’s a very sad time for us,” echoing the sentiments of an entire community. If the Broward County plant ever had a charismatic leader, it was Hennessey.
Although the lifetime of fond memories in the Sunshine State help assuage the difficulty of moving on without that annual circuit, Hennessey's harness racing mantra and reliable manner helps encourage all of us to forge ahead when time marches on.
Hennessey recently told the USTA’s Ken Weingartner, “I could never have imagined it in my wildest dreams all the things that have happened to me in my life; to meet the people I’ve met. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. That’s it all in one sentence. There it is. It’s what I was raised to do. It’s what I was put here for. And it’s all I’m going to do.”
This year, in addition to the year-end awards for horses and horsepeople from the local tracks, the Monticello-Goshen chapter will also honour Anthony Bruno (John Manzi Leadership Award); Gabe Prewitt (John Gilmour Good Guy Award); Lance Ditewig (Excelsior Award); Dr. Stephen P. Dey III (Cradle of the Trotter Breeders Award); Auxiliary of Goshen Historic Track (Amy Bull Crist Distinguished Service Award); Ted Waddell (Phil Pines Award); Braxten Boyd (Rising Star); Scott Keppler (Amateur Driver); and Tracy and Dr. Gary Smith (Mighty M Award of Appreciation).
Tickets for the gala event at the Wallkill Golf Club, Middletown, NY, can be reserved by contacting Shawn Wiles at 845-798-4074 or by email at [email protected]. To place a congratulatory ad in the souvenir journal, please contact Chris Tully at 845-807-7538 or by email at [email protected].
(With files from Monticello-Goshen Chapter of USHWA, Harness Racing Museum and USTA)