Hennig has deep and rich roots in the horse training world. He grew up with
his siblings in his father, John’s, racing stable. His early equine education
was picked up by a couple of Hall of Famers in Jack Van Berg and D.
Wayne Lukas. When Hennig finally went out on his own, he quickly went on
to win a series of Grade I races from coast-to-coast.
On the eve of his filly, Live Lively’s
start in the Grade II Gulfstream Park
Oaks, Hennig chatted about his beginnings in the Thoroughbred horse racing
world, what he’s learned along the way and how it feels to win a big race. Our
conversation occurred just after Live Lively received a visit from NFL ProBowl defensive linemen, Vince Wilfork – interesting to say the
Tony Bada Bing: You’re training resume is filled with Grade
I wins, many of which kicked off your training career in 1993 – Arlington
Million, Santa Anita Derby and United Nations, to name a few – how were you able
to attain such success so quickly and did those successes build a level of
expectation for continued success from a younger you? In other words, did you
say to yourself, “wow this is easy?”
Mark Hennig: I was very fortunate. I went out on my own, straight
from [D.]Wayne [Lukas]. I had some great clients right away. By virtue of
having good clients, I had good horses. And then I went right from that to Ned
Evans who I had a lot of horses for and just kept rolling. I think at that
age I was probably too young to appreciate the success that I was having. And
you know in hindsight you look back and you’re like, “Wow, that really was a
heck of a run.” The longer you’re in this game you realize just like any
basketball coach, football coach, whatever, if you don’t have the players
you’re not going to win. It’s much easier to train a good horse than a bad
horse. While I appreciate the success I had early in my career, I appreciate it
a lot more now than I did then.
TBB: Beyond hard work and determination how have the
experiences and opportunities, starting with your father and then moving onto
such legendary trainers like Neil Howard, Jack Van Berg and D. Wayne Lukas,
help prepare you for a successful training career?
MH: Growing up in a racing family, a work ethic was first
and foremost instilled in all of us kids at a young age. You know my sister is
married to Kiaran
[McLaughlin], she was working with my dad too. We were all there together.
You know my dad is the one who got me hooked up with Jack Van Berg when I first
left college to go to work. He thought it would be a good idea if I worked with
those stature of guys. So that’s what we did. It worked out well. I went from
Jack to Wayne. I worked for Neil Howard over one summer when I was still going
to college. It was very unselfish of my father. I could have been working for
him; still working for him. But he did what was in my best interest and got
me connected to the right people that opened a lot of doors.
TBB: Anything in particular from your dad or those other
trainers that you have taken with you or expanded on in your own career,
anything that comes to mind?
MH: Well, certainly you know, leg work and stuff started with
my dad. Certainly Jack has lot of old school ways of doing things that I picked
up on. You know the years of experience with Wayne were just like throwing 10
years into three, because of the volume of horses we were working with, the
organization itself and the organizational skills of how to handle running a
barn and those kinds of things we were all exposed to as assistants that some
other guys probably don’t get exposed to. When I had my division for Wayne I
was often in the mid-west where in a year’s time I might be around 150
different horses. It’s’ all matter of seeing things and experiencing things.
Making right decisions and making some wrong decisions and learning from them.
So a lot of what we do in racing goes off of your experiences and hopefully you
learn from them and try not to repeat mistakes, but it’s a great education. You
can’t just learn to train horses by reading a book, you’ve got to be there and
do it and the more horses you’re exposed to and the more things you see, really
helps you down the road.
TBB: In the time you worked under Lukas, he had an
incredible string of outstanding horses such as Winning Colors, Gulch and Steinlen,
What specifically did you learn from Lukas about training Grade I/championship
MH: You know Todd, myself, Kiaran – there’s a certain
training pattern that we all kind of use. It’s kind of ironic. We were looking
at the Form – my owner and I of Live Lively. You can look at Live Lively’s work
tab from back in January and Dreaming of
Julia’s work tab and they almost worked exactly on the same days the whole
way this winter. You know that’s more of a product of what we learned in that
camp in terms of style of training probably. Trying to make sure we leave some
gas in the tank and not over work them – that’s the biggest key we learned from
Wayne and paying attention to detail in the process.
TBB: Also during your time under Lukas, there was an amazing
group of assistants including Todd
Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart, George Weaver, etc., did you
know at the time how influential a group you were working with? And did this
group form a bond that’s lasted into your own successful careers?
MH: We all appreciated what the other one did and what
everyone brought to the table. Randy Bradshaw was there too at the time. It’s a
great group of guys that all got along really well. Kiaran left to be a jock’s
agent, and I was the first assistant that went on my own, which was probably
more difficult than later on. I think Wayne… for a little while it was a little
bittersweet when I was gone, but I think he came around and really embraced us
all as we went on our own. He’s very proud of us at this point. When we were
first leaving the nest it was hard on him personally and at the same time he
lost a key assistant with Jeff’s [Lukas] injury.
TBB: Of course you have Live Lively, a graded stakes winner,
going in Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks. She has quickly made the jump from
maiden to allowance to stakes winner in her last three starts. At what point
did you know you were onto something special with her? Why?
MH: Before I even ran her back in June I thought she had some
very special qualities. I was a little disappointed when she didn’t when her
first start, but she came out of it subsequently with some issues that needed a
little time. Going into her maiden race in November I was pretty confident that
she was going to be a quality filly. You have to wait and see [coming off
layoff]. I was very confident coming off that maiden win that she would move
forward pretty quickly.
TBB: The Oaks has a compact and seemingly evenly matched
field – besides a safe, victorious trip what are you hoping to see from Live
Lively in this race that would give you the feeling she’s ready for the next
big race - the Kentucky Oaks?
MH: She’s trained so well since that last race. I think
she’s getting more and more professional in everything she does. I’d just like
to see another step in the right direction that way. She’s naturally going to
come away from there with a pretty good cruising pace. I don’t feel that she
has to be in front. If someone wants to really commit their horse to be in
front of her, so be it. I’ve worked her behind horses and she’s happy to sit
off of them, if need be. She’s going to go a certain pace because that’s just
he natural pace.
TBB: As a trainer what does it feel like to win a big race,
a grade one race right after your horse crosses the finish line first? If you
could describe it, what’s that feeling like for you?
MH: A combination of relief and you’re obviously happy and
excited. You do a lot of reflecting in those moments right after. The decisions
you made and things you’ve done and try to store them away and use them in the
TBB: What would it mean for you to have Kentucky Oaks starter and/or
winner at this stage of your career?
MH: It would be great at any stage. I just appreciate having
a good horse like her. It’s very rewarding to have a horse of her caliber and
have her go out there and show up. She’s loves her job, it’s very fulfilling.
TBB: Do you have any pre-race superstitions for big races
like GP Oaks? If so, what are they and if not, how do you avoid rituals in the
MH:I probably have tons of them, and I couldn’t begin to go
through all of them.