Friday, 18 November 2022 17:57

Hennessy and Kelly to represent Western Canada at upcoming National Driving Championships

National Driving Championship drivers Mike Hennessy and Dave Kelly National Driving Championship drivers Mike Hennessy and Dave Kelly Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

Two Alberta drivers have an opportunity this Thursday that few people get: the chance to represent Canada in a world competition. Dave Kelly and Mike Hennessy are two of the eight finalists in Standardbred Canada’s National Driving Championship at Century Mile. The winner of that will wear the Canadian colours in the 2023 World Driving Championship that will be held in The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium from Aug. 14 to Aug. 18.

“It should be a lot of fun,” said Kelly, 33, who is enjoying his best year ever as a driver and trainer. “It would be cool to win it. But just to be a part of it is really great. No matter what sport you are in you want that chance to represent your country on an international stage. Whether its the NHL, the NBA or any other sport those players all want to go to the Olympics and represent their country. This is our opportunity to wear the Canadian flag. Getting the chance to wear the red and white has me pretty excited.”

Hennessy feels the same. “I’m one of eight drivers to get a chance to win a trip to Europe and represent Canada. It’s hard not to be excited about something like that,” said Hennessy, 39, whose year got better and better as it went along.

“To win would be awesome. This is my chance. It’s something I’ve thought about ever since Sylvain Filion won the World Driving Championship back in 1999. It would be an incredible feeling and it’s got to be as good as winning some of the top stakes races… Probably even a little better than that,” said Hennessy, who won the Western Regional Driving Championship held at Calgary’s Century Downs on June 19 going away. Hennessy had the regional championship sewn up even before the final race was contested with 62 points.

Kelly was one of three drivers that finished with 45 points. The other six drivers in Thursday’s championship which begins at 6:15 on a day that is normally dark at Century Mile are Gilles Barrieau and Marc Campbell from Atlantic Canada, Pascal Berube and Samuel Fillion from Quebec/Eastern Ontario and Doug McNair and Louis-Phillippe Roy from Ontario.

Kelly and Hennessy represent Western Canada. “Gilles Barrieau has been around forever and he represented Canada one other time. It will be a nice to finally get to be in the same races as he is in,” Hennessy said of the Maritimes driver who has won 5,013 races in his career.

“It will be a nice experience to drive against all of them. To be on the same track as them will give me a better idea of what it’s like to compete against that kind of talent.”

“Any time you get a chance to compete against those kind of drivers you see how you stack up against them,” agreed Kelly.

The eight drivers will drive in eight races with each driver starting once from post position one, once from post two, once from post three and so on. The points are 15 for a win, 10 for a second, seven for a third, five for a fourth, three for a sixth, two for a seven and one point for finishing last. The driver with the most points is this year’s Canadian champion.

The drivers will select their horses in a draft similar to what happens in a hockey pool. Each driver gets one first-round pick, one second-round pick and so on right through an eighth-round pick. Drafting horses that, of course, all race in Alberta could give Kelly and Hennessy a home-field edge in that they will know the horses better than those coming from other parts of Canada.

“It could be an advantage,” said Hennessy. “But it might be a disadvantage too. We know the horses a little more but the other drivers might change things up and it might work out better. You never know. I am glad it’s on a mile track instead of a smaller track. The tighter turns on smaller tracks aren’t as friendly to some horses.”

Kelly said that when he sees the draw he will have a better idea as to what strategy he uses to draft the horses. “I really don’t know what my strategy will be. I haven’t really thought about it. I’ll know better when I get to the draft. Some horses in the later rounds might be high risk, high reward. You might take one of those or you might pick a safer horse that you’re pretty sure won’t win but can suck a long and get you some points.”

This is Kelly and Hennessy’s first National Driving Championship. “I’ve been in three regional championships,” said Kelly. “I was third in my first regional and fourth in the other two. You learn by your mistakes. You’ve got to maximize the points as best you can with each horse. You can’t win it with your first two races.”

Kelly has won 198 races this year with the horses he has has driven earning $1,359,115. “My goal at the start of the year was to win 200 races so hopefully I’ll get there. It’s been a great year.”

The most wins in a single year Kelly previously won was 122 in 2020. Last year was mostly a write-off with Covid and a broken arm sustained in a spill just after the finishing line in a qualifying race. Yet Kelly still managed to win 90 races.

“We were all off for five months because of Covid and then I got dumped the first day after some of the Covid restrictions were lifted. The timing couldn’t have been worse.”

But there was a bright side. “The doctors told me I would be off 12-14 weeks but I came back in five and a half weeks,” said Kelly, who used a hyperbaric chamber and BEMER products that are said to improve the body’s circulation and speed up the healing.

Both Kelly and Hennessy come from solid harness racing backgrounds. Kelly’s father David B. Kelly trained and drove; his two grandfathers - Hartigan on his mother’s side and Hank on his dad’s side - were also heavily involved in the sport; he has three uncles involved in harness racing; a cousin, Ryan Campbell is also a trainer and driver and, if that isn’t enough, his younger brother, Colin, is one of Canada’s top drivers.

“Colin finished third in the Canadian Regionals in Ontario,” said Kelly. “It would have been nice for both of us to get to Nationals. Maybe one year in the future that will happen.”

Hennessy’s dad, Rod, is still one of Alberta’s premier trainers and as a driver he won 2,697 races for earnings of $15,717,502. Rod is still a big influence and help to his son.

“Dad trains and owns Shark Week with Lorne Duffield,” said Mike. “That horse is probably the best horse I’ve ever driven,” he said of the horse that has won his last three starts in a row and six of his last seven all against the best horses in Alberta. Shark Week also equalled Century Downs’ track record of 1:51 1/5. “He’s athletic; he’s fast. He’s a freak.”

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