The now-sophomore colt Strike Power made quite an impression when he debuted a few days before Christmas at Gulfstream Park. He stormed to the lead out of the gate and flew home to win the 5 ½-furlong maiden special weight event by eight lengths. Strike Power's final time of 1:02.67 was awfully close to the track record (1:02.34), and he earned some of the best speed figures of 2017.
Returning in last weekend's Grade 3 Swale Stakes over seven furlongs, Strike Power cruised to an easy 2 ¾-length victory. Now the son of Speightstown is undefeated in two starts, and trainer Mark Hennig is looking toward two-turn races and the possibility of a Kentucky Derby campaign.
“He relaxes very well in the mornings, and he's not rank in his races,” Hennig said. “It's certainly worth stretching him out to see what he can do… So far, he's done everything I ask of him.”
It was a typical response from the quiet, well-spoken trainer from Ohio. He is down-to-earth and essentially a realist: he consistently downplays his own abilities and gives the credit to the horse and his owners, Courtlandt Farms' Donald and Donna Adams.
“Look, there are a lot of good horsemen out there, plenty of guys who could probably train Strike Power to do what he did,” said Hennig. “A lot of them just haven't had the same opportunities I have.”
Born into a racing family, Hennig was educated as much by the horses in his father John's stable as he was by the school system in Grove City. His home track was the now-defunct Beulah Park, and Hennig clearly remembers riding the bus to and from Beulah's front gate to do chores before and after school.
By the time he was in high school, Hennig was pretty sure he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He graduated a year early and went on to attend The Ohio State University with the intention of pursuing veterinary school. During the summers, though, he let the call of the racetrack lure him back to the world he'd grown up in.
It was the summer he worked for Neil Howard in Saratoga that had the biggest effect. Hennig was grooming a filly named Weekend Delight, and it was his first-ever visit to The Spa. When she jumped up and won the G3 Schuylerville Stakes, Hennig knew he couldn't walk away from a training career.
Hennig landed a job with Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg and got a taste of Southern California, and in late 1987 he stepped into an assistant role for D. Wayne Lukas. Also under the Coach's tutelage at that time and over the next five years were future trainers like Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin (the latter is now Hennig's brother-in-law).
“I worked a lot with Jeff (Lukas' son), and he was a great horseman,” said Hennig. “Wayne was such a great organizer, and his attention to detail was a big learning tool for us all.
“Any horseman will tell you, though, that the key to improving is getting around more and more horses, seeing different issues and figuring out how to get past them. With Wayne, we got the opportunity to see such a large number of horses with a lot of quality… You couldn't help but learn.”
In the summer of 1992, Team Valor's Barry Irwin gave Hennig his first job as the trainer-of-record. The semi-private job included successes like Star of Cozzene, winner of the Arlington Million, and Personal Hope, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Hennig took the stable public in 1995, largely based on the support of the late Edward P. Evans, and Hennig has saddled Thoroughbreds to win more than $1 million annually ever since.
Despite his success, Hennig insists the best part of his job is not necessarily the winner's circle.
“The thing that keeps us coming back is the mornings, far more than the afternoons,” he said. “Watching the sun come up over beautiful Thoroughbreds galloping every day… we have the best offices in the world.”
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