From Tragedy to Triumph

by Rich Fisher

A successful Standardbred trainer from Canada whose horses have won more than $34 million, Wallace has long been a popular figure amongst owners, drivers, fellow trainers and the media. After enduring ups and downs since 2012, his trajectory is headed upward, especially in his relatively new venture as a Thoroughbred owner. Wallace’s Fine Grind, a 4-year-old gelding, has won twice this year at Ontario venues Woodbine Racetrack in July and Fort Erie Racetrack in September. A second Thoroughbred found the winner’s circle in October when Timeskip won at Woodbine Racetrack.

That success, coupled with the 94 Standardbred victories he has garnered over the past two-plus seasons, has helped Wallace slowly distance himself from the pain of the tragic barn fire that killed 18 of his horses in January 2016. Stablemates Roger Mayotte, Chantal Mitchell, Kris DiCenzo, Dan Lagace and Floyd Amos were also affected by the blaze as 43 horses perished.

“It’s every horseman’s worst nightmare to get that phone call,” said Renee Kierans, who lives with Wallace and trains his Thoroughbreds. “I don’t think he’s completely recovered from it as far as the number of horses he had or the quality of horses he had. When you have a horse like an Apprentice Hanover you develop from a 2-year-old and who won more than C$1 million, then you have some other young horses that were just really starting to turn the corner—then, in a split second, they’re all gone.”

Fortunately for Wallace, he still had the support of numerous owners. Equally important, he had Kierans, who became a lot more to him than just a pretty face in 2012.

Kierans’ long and varied racing career is like a pinata—bust it open and you have no idea what might come spilling out. She entered the racing business in 1983 and has been an owner, trainer, exercise rider, amateur jockey, outrider and broadcaster.

Kierans began working at Woodbine Racetrack on opening day of 1984 as a trainer and from 2002 to 2012 she worked for HPItv, part of the Woodbine Entertainment Group. Her duties included post-race interviews with Standardbred drivers, as both forms of racing were conducted at the Toronto track. Wallace was a frequent guest, and before long their conversations went well beyond the studio to the home they now share in Puslinch, Ont.

“Benny was always very approachable for an interview, even if you just needed a 20- or 30-second hit,” Kierans said. “He was well-spoken and had good information. It just kind of went from where we were together, then we were living together, we got a house together, and then we got Thoroughbreds together.”

“We did some interviews and developed a relationship and it kind of took off,” Wallace said. “That was close to seven years ago; it’s phenomenal.”

Once he claimed Kierans’ heart, Wallace sought to obtain another segment of her world. After starting out with Standardbreds in 1971 and amassing over 1,847 victories, the Guelph, Ont., native assuredly is a harness racing lifer. Lodged in his mind’s recesses, however, was the burning question of what life was like when people rode horses rather than sat behind them. Kierans was the key to unlocking that secret.

“She’s been with Thoroughbreds forever,” Wallace said. “We just decided to take a bit of a plunge and have some fun. I knew going into it I’ll never leave Standardbreds; that’s not the end goal by any means. But it’s something I enjoy. It’s just a breath of fresh air to see what’s happening on the other side. It’s kind of like a life re-awakening to develop or watch the progress that happens with Thoroughbreds as to how it happens with Standardbreds.”

Kierans noted that numerous Standardbred trainers are curious about Thoroughbreds, but don’t have a way into the business.

“He was always very intrigued by Thoroughbreds,” she said. “Other than the horses looking the same, it’s a completely different breed of horse, and that’s one thing I had to try to explain to him. We don’t go once a week the way the Standardbreds do, and they’re probably a bit more delicate, but it’s something he has really enjoyed. I think he’s having a good time.”

While Kierans handles all aspects of training their Thoroughbreds, she acknowledges Wallace is a tremendous resource.

“He knows horses and has a wealth of knowledge that can apply to both breeds,” she said. “So I pick his brain on a lot of things. He doesn’t understand completely what I do with the Thoroughbreds and he still scratches his head about it, but it works.”

 

In 2013, Wallace Standardbreds made its first Thoroughbred purchase. Wallace currently owns five—several that race and several that are being brought along. Kierans accompanies him to the sales, and Wallace makes his choices the same way he always has.

“When I’m buying yearlings, I look them over as I do a Standardbred,” he said. “I’ll be 70 in January, I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years, and a horse has still gotta look like a horse to me. The symmetry of a good Thoroughbred is the same as the symmetry of a good Standardbred. He has to look like he’s got physical attributes in the right spots. That’s all I go on.

“As far as picking up legs, pinching bones and all that crap, I never put much into it. I always thought the look of a horse, the feel of a horse, and how he handles himself on his feet was more important than for me to start poking and jabbing. Maybe I’m old-school, but I just think a horse has to look like a horse; I think that translates into how they’re going to perform.”

Respecting his knowledge, Kierans provides input but usually agrees on Wallace’s choices. Once the horse is in the barn, however, she puts a no trespassing sign on the door.

“I’m in there hands-on and he shows up for the races,” she said. “I’ve driven some horses. I enjoy driving. I haven’t driven any for Ben, but that’s cool because he doesn’t gallop for me. It’s like, don’t come to my kitchen and I won’t come to yours, but we’ll eat together.”

While Wallace steers clear of his mate’s turf, he has picked up on several differences between the two breeds. The first is how they are trained.

“In the Standardbred game, we train to speed. In the Thoroughbred game you train to distance. So right off the bat, it’s sort of a re-adjustment,” Wallace said. “I’m always asking how much did we go, and try to factor it into the mile position as opposed to how far did we go. In the Thoroughbreds, you’re going by three-eighths to a half-mile to seven-eighths and develop your speed and stamina that way. Standardbreds, you’re looking at your stopwatch. You’re starting at 2:40 and trying to get down to two minutes.”

Another variance is the way trainers of each breed assess a horse’s progress. Thoroughbred veterans observe, while Standardbred folks need to tinker.

“The truly experienced Thoroughbred trainers pick up more recognition through vision, through watching, developing, and that idea,” Wallace said. “I think the truly successful Standardbred trainer develops more on the practical side—driving and getting a feel of the horse. It’s the practicality of it as opposed to the visionary thing.

“Those old trainers who have been around 20 years can see things on the track and in the shed row. They can pick up things where that horse may fit, where it’s best suited, whereas a Standardbred trainer would be more apt to pick that up while in the race bike himself—‘This horse feels he would be better suited to be raced in the hole, this horse feels better suited to race up front.’ It’s quite a difference.”

Wallace has loved discovering those divergences. He feels transitioning from Standardbreds to Thoroughbreds is an easier adjustment if only because there is so much more equipment to contend with.

“That’s just my opinion and maybe I’m wrong,” he said. “Maybe someone else thinks it’s easier going to Standardbreds. This is fun. I couldn’t have done it without Renee. She knew all the background and made it very easy for me to cross over, but winning a horse race is winning a horse race. I don’t care if it’s Standardbred or Thoroughbred, the  excitement level is still the same. It’s just nice to take a walk on the wild side and have some luck doing it.”

 

The luck was all bad on Jan. 4, 2016, when Wallace’s stable was decimated by the horrific fire at Classy Lane Training Centre in Puslinch. At age 67, he could have just decided he’d had enough and felt sorry for himself, but his initial thought was quite the opposite.

“The biggest problem is not having a barn to go to, and starting to try to figure out how the hell you’re ever going to get back on your feet again,” he said. “You’re so preoccupied with that, there’s not a whole lot of time for ‘Why me?’ or ‘What am I gonna do now?’ It’s a matter of just getting out and doing it again and getting on your feet and trying to regroup and move forward. I never occupied my time with feeling sorry for myself.

“Anyone that’s known me knows work ethic and a desire to win has always been part of my makeup, so I never really lost any of that. It’s very difficult to explain the gamut of emotions you go through. The emotions are so deep you don’t have time to dwell on them. You spend more time dwelling on getting things rolling again.”

Things began to roll again that same year, thanks in part to a big season by Easy Lover Hanover. Brad Grant, who owned four Wallace-trained horses killed in the fire, provided Wallace with the horse, who won $314,214 that year.

“A lot of people reached out to him with their sympathies and offers to help,” Kierans said. “He’s so well respected in the game. He’s been in it a long time; a lot of people have gone by the wayside, but he’s still going. The fire was really hard, but you just bounce back.”

Wallace currently trains 13 horses, and as of Oct. 9 had won 22 races from 137 starts this season. This year also provided a rewarding moment, as his former 1999 pacing Triple Crown champion Blissfull Hall, who he trained, was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Wallace contends he feels great, and has no intentions of retiring in the immediate future. For now, he will enjoy life in what could be termed a “mixed relationship” with Kierans.

“Some would say maybe the Hatfields and McCoys when you’re talking Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds,” she said. “They don’t necessarily mesh that well. Every now and then he might question why I’m doing something, but we don’t really argue about it. He lets me do my thing.”

That’s because he loves when she performs her work.

“It’s fun,” Wallace said. “It’s almost a refreshing professional break at this stage of my life, to see another breed of horse that you’ve had and watch it go through the steps of development, then win a horse race.”

Which makes a lot of people close to Wallace smile, as there is nothing better than a comeback story with a happy ending.

 

Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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