While dual Hall of Fame driver Wally Hennessey and prominent trainer Tony O'Sullivan were the featured guests on Wednesday night's (June 3) edition of COSA TV, the spotlight more truly landed on the premier distaff trotters they've been associated with.
Hennessey, a native of Prince Edward Island who splits time between Pompano Park in Florida and Tioga Downs in New York, has the rare distinction of having been inducted to both the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame at Woodbine Racetrack.
"When you get inducted and after you get inducted, you still don't even know whether you're worthy to be there," said Hennessey, who has thus far refused to rest on his laurels despite the accolades he has earned. "If you don't take it seriously, you won't reach your goals. My life didn't change either time. I don't feel any more special personally; it's just another accolade I have. I try to do my best whether it's a $4,000 claimer or an open horse or a stakes race; I give everybody my best."
Hennessey went on to recount the ride of his life with the great Moni Maker and her uncanny ability to evoke awe every time she set foot on the racetrack.
"She just did what she did," Hennessey told COSA TV presenter Greg Blanchard. "And every time she did something, it was like, 'How did she do that?'"
Moni Maker's greatest success at two and three came on the New York Sire Stakes circuit, but it was on the bigger tracks where she turned in her best efforts.
"Most of the NYSS races are on half-mile tracks, but lo and behold, at Syracuse, she came home :26.4, :27, and that was unheard of," Hennessey said. "It felt like she was just jogging. When she was in full gear, she could go by a hoppled pacer."
Moni Maker's renown took her — and Hennessey — to Sweden for two editions of the Elitlopp. And while they braved a long uncovered grind to win Scandinavia's trotting classic in 1998, the pageantry around the race and the atmosphere of the day stand out most clearly to Hennessey.
"Racing in Europe, it's a big sport," he recounted. "There's a lot of people who attend the races, and the paddock areas are completely full. You can't even move. When Moni Maker showed up, everybody showed up. When she would go out to warm up, people in the paddock area — it was like Moses in the Red Sea. As she was walking through, they're giving her a standing ovation as she's going to the track. She was amazing!"
Two years after her Elitlopp victory, Moni Maker put the perfect bow on a remarkable career, winning the Trot Mondial in Montréal by a widening 4-1/2 lengths and setting an 11-furlong world record of 2:38.3.
"The last race of her life, in Montréal, she broke the world record over a mile and three-eighths," Hennessey said. "That was the last day she ever raced. Nobody could do that."
O'Sullivan, who had emigrated from his native New Zealand to New Jersey just two years before Moni Maker's Elitlopp win, echoed his admiration for the richest trotter in harness racing history.
"You don't do what she did over a long period of time unless you're exceptional," said O'Sullivan. "She was clearly ahead of her time. Watching that Elitlopp just gives you goosebumps."
After leaving New Zealand to first work for fellow Kiwi Paul Jessop and Australian expat Ross Croghan in New Jersey, O'Sullivan found his way to Canada, where he ultimately found his greatest success.
"I came here in the summer of 1999," O'Sullivan said from his base at Classy Lane Training Centre in Puslinch, Ont. "I was working for Ross Croghan, and we had half a dozen horses that came up for the Pacing Derby, the Slots Cup — other Grand Circuit stuff. I finished that summer out and decided to stay here. At that time, the slots program was beginning to boom, so the money was big. But the main reason (I stayed) was it felt a lot like New Zealand. The people are really nice.
"I got a job with Nat Varty, who had just ventured out on his own. And then after about two years of that, Mark Harder got in touch with me ... we started with five (horses) and it turned into 30-odd. It was probably one of the best things I ever did and was a big stepping stone into what I've done for the last 10 to 15 years."
Since his time as an assistant trainer for Harder, O'Sullivan has likewise enjoyed success with a few trotting mares. Susies Magic, with whom he won a Breeders Crown in 2006, helped put O'Sullivan on the map in a big way, but he had his work cut out for him with the filly in her sophomore campaign.
"She was very tough to train," O'Sullivan remarked. "She was extremely aggressive and had her quirks, but had a lot of fun with her. That started a great relationship with Lee DeVisser and the Peninsula Farms connections. We won some other races — she won in 1:52 at The Meadowlands, and I even drove her at Tioga and Vernon one year. She had her quirks, but I loved her. She definitely helped me.
"I was probably a bit naive in terms of what we were racing against. Dave Miller had driven her a lot — he was quietly confident. In the elimination, she might have gone a quarter in :25 and change off the gate. I just thought if we could get her to relax for Dave, then we had a chance. She had the tactical gate speed, which at Woodbine was immensely important. I knew she had the stamina; I knew she had the desire. Really, it was just a matter of getting her quiet. We managed to do that, the race worked out, and she won the Breeders Crown at 20-1. It was fantastic."
Since then, O'Sullivan has enjoyed notable success with millionaire pacers Alsace Hanover and Drop The Ball, along with Ontario Sires Stakes standout Muscle Baby Doll, among others.
The entire COSA TV broadcast appears below.