Body slams & stretch drives: Passions unite at the North America Cup

by Perry Lefko

Thirteen-year-old Wyatt Beaver is fan of horse racing and pro wrestling, and on one glorious day the two distinctively different sports melded together for the Delaware teen who is a fan of the oval and the squared circle.

I had a hand in making part of it happen and his grandmother did the rest, along with the horse racing Gods, who created an unbelievable ending, the kind of thing that could only be scripted in a wrestling match.

I met Wyatt the night of the Pepsi North America Cup eliminations at Mohawk Racetrack. He was wearing a T-shirt of World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Roman Reigns. I’m a big fan of the WWE, so it was interesting to see a kid at a racetrack with a wrestling shirt. The next night Roman Reigns was wrestling in a WWE pay-per-view in which he had a chance to win a match that would give him a shot at fighting for the Heavyweight Championship. Just when it looked like Roman Reigns, the ultimate good guy, was going to win, he was screwed by another wrestler, the nefarious Bray Wyatt. It broke Wyatt Beaver’s heart, along with all the other fans of Roman Reigns, who is a cousin of Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock.

But I digress.

What I didn’t know is that Wyatt Beaver’s mother is harness racing broadcaster Heather Vitale, who was in attendance for the race because her mother, Joann Looney King, trains Wakizashi Hanover, entered in one of the three NA Cup elimination races. Heather is probably the perkiest personality in harness racing, promoting the sport unlike anyone else. Since 1998, she has produced and hosted POST TIME, a weekly half-hour show sponsored by the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association that features fun interviews, behind-the-scenes action and racing highlights. The show, shot and edited by Faust Video Productions, covers racing at Harrington Raceway, Dover Downs and Ocean Downs. It airs on WBOC, a CBS affiliate on the Delmarva Peninsula at 11:30 on Sunday mornings.

I had always wanted to meet Heather, having seen some of the videos she has posted on-line, including one in which she was accidentally pushed to the ground by a horse heading on to the track.

“The big mare’s down, look out,” said the driver of the horse.

“My God, I’m a broodmare, too,” she said with a laugh, picking herself back up.

Heather also has another son, seven-year-old Trey. I think they may one day be a WWE tag team – kind of like the brothers Goldust and Stardust.

When Wakizashi Hanover paraded on the track with driver Tim Tetrick, the woman who I thought was Heather cheered loudly, as did the boy wearing the wrestling shirt. When the race ended, Wakizashi Hanover finished first at almost 7-1 odds, beating Artspeak, last year’s champion two-year-old male pacer in the U.S. and Canada. I was covering the elimination races for Harness Racing Update, and I quickly ran over to the paddock to interview Scott Zeron, the regular driver of Artspeak, to get his comments on why he felt his horse lost. He said the winning horse outsprinted him to the wire, but hoped to avenge the loss in the $1 million final.

When I returned to area near the winner’s circle, there was Heather. I introduced myself and she said she knew who I was having read my articles, and told me her mother trains Wakizashi Hanover. Then Heather introduced me to Bruce Kennedy, who along with five others own Wakizashi Hanover and race as Tri County Stable of Truro, Nova Scotia. Bruce gave me some background on the horse, whom he purchased late in the 2013 Harrisburg Sale after buying a harness and waiting and waiting to buy a yearling that matched his outfit’s price point. They had a budget of $20,000, but decided to up their limit and purchased the Dragon Again colt for $23,000. They subsequently had the colt gelded when he started acting a little unruly early with his handlers.

I also told Heather about my interest in pro wrestling and how I admired her son’s shirt. I would later find out that harness racing and pro wrestling are his two loves – next to his mother, of course. She told me he was named after Wyatt Earp, famous for taking part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. She also told me Wyatt’s last name is Beaver. I had to laugh because Wyatt Beaver sounds like the name of a pro wrestler.

I told Heather I knew Anthony Carelli, also known as WWE superstar Santino Marella, who owns Battle Arts Academy, a fitness centre in Mississauga where I do strength and conditioning training Saturday mornings. I asked Anthony if he would sign a picture of his character for Wyatt and he happily obliged. Anthony also said he would meet Wyatt at the gym if it could be arranged. The plan was for it to happen at noon on the day of NA Cup final, which would take place 10 hours later. It would be about a 45-minute drive from where Heather and Wyatt were staying to get to the gym, and it was going to be a huge surprise. I was going to do an interview with Anthony in character as Santino talking to Wyatt. Unfortunately, Anthony couldn’t be at the gym at that time because he was en route home from Montreal. I told Heather and she understood. She said she hoped to be back in October for the Breeders Crown at Woodbine and we could try to bring Wyatt to Battle Arts to meet Anthony.

Prior to the start of the card, I met Heather and Wyatt and gave him the signed photo of Santino Marella and a Battle Arts Academy T-shirt. He was speechless, but I think I was more overwhelmed than him. Wyatt was wearing a T-shirt of longtime WWE champion John Cena underneath a sleeveless vest with the colours that his grandfather wore when he raced.

Well, as everybody now knows, Wakizashi Hanover pulled off a bigger upset than the week before, beating the previously-undefeated Wiggle It Jiggleit. Kudos to my buddy Garnet Barnsdale, the best harness handicapper I know and second only to Heather when it comes to putting the word out about horse racing, who had publicly picked Wakizashi to win. His 14-year-old son, Nicholas, also known as Ace, had Wakizashi Hanover as his best bet and had his mother, Kim, plunk down a few bucks on the horse.

Heather, her mother, whom I learned had overcome a serious ailment that had kept her bedridden for a year two years ago, and her husband of 40 years, Jim King, who is also her partner in training, were whooping it up in the winner’s circle with the winning owners. Three of the owners were first-time owners. How amazing is that?

And in the middle of all the hoopla was Wyatt, holding up a belt he had made the day before with the words, Pepsi North America Cup champion.

“I made the belt because the North America Cup is like Wrestlemania with all the best horses. I’m so happy (Wakizashi Hanover) gets to take home the belt.”

Truly, this was a day that Wyatt Beaver would never forget. It all came together like in a wrestling match in which the underdog wins. Early Sunday morning, Heather and Wyatt left to drive back to Delaware. Wyatt had the belt with him. For now, Wakizashi Hanover is the undisputed champion of the three-year-old male pacing division.

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