While 2020 will be remembered as the year that COVID-19 took hold and basically cancelled most live sports in the country, Puslinch standardbred horse trainer Ben Wallace will recall it fondly as the year he was named to a pair of halls of fame.
“It was a big year,” the 72-year-old said of the year in which he was selected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame.
Wallace, who’ll reach the 50-year mark on his career late this year, began his career in the sport shortly after graduating from the University of Windsor with a degree in geography and thoughts of returning to school to study urban planning, but those thoughts soon dissipated.
“The fella I started with was in Buffalo,” Wallace recalled. “I started in Buffalo and he told me if I make it through winter I'd be in the game the rest of my life. It was terrible down there as they hadn't raced horses in the winter in Buffalo for quite some time so everything was still summer barns and we basically worked right in the elements. It was a son of a gun, but I persevered and I enjoyed it. I came north that spring and I started to work for Keith Waples up at Mohawk. I stuck with him and just carried on.”
A few years earlier as he played for the Guelph CVI Green Gaels in every sport he could, there was never a thought of having a career in horse racing.
“Of the 25 years I was in Guelph, I guarantee 20 of it was spent at Exhibition Park,” he said. “That's where I spent all my time. I was really athletic. I loved baseball, football, basketball and all that stuff and I got really involved in it at high school. Racing horses was not even on my road map, so to speak.”
Wallace was born in Kitchener, but his family moved to a home a few blocks from Exhibition Park before he was a year old.
“Going to the park was something we just did. There were no computers sitting at home,” he said. “We were out and that was just the way it was. Every season had a sport.”
And Wallace enjoyed quite a lot of success in those other sports. He was a pitcher for the Guelph C-Joys team that won the Ontario Baseball Association senior championship in 1966 and was inducted into the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame four years ago.
“I was 16 years old at the time. I was a kid,” he said. “That was a big deal to win that championship. I can't put myself down as being a cornerstone, but I was very lucky.
“I was scouted quite a bit professionally, but I never could reach the level that was required. But I loved baseball – absolutely loved baseball.”
He also loved football and basketball and played both at the University of Windsor and was a win away from playing in the Vanier Cup as a defensive back in 1969.
“We won the Ontario championship and then we went up and won the Quebec championship and we went out west and played the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg,” he recalled. “It was the coldest Saturday afternoon I've been in in my life. If we'd have won that we would've went to the Vanier Cup. We were leading 13-8 at half and got beat 41-13. We were not a second-half team, but oh my God, was it cold out there.”
That year was Wallace’s first season on the squad.
“I was somewhat fortunate there,” he said. “It was my rookie year and I was a defensive halfback and the player in front of me, he broke his arm first game. I was next in line and I had a fun year. Then I ended up dislocating my shoulder twice coming back the next year and I didn't get to play much.”
That 1969 team was named the winner of the University of Windsor Alumni Sports Hall of Fame's Team Achievement Award in 2008, the first football team to get the honour.
His transition into horse racing in general and harness racing in specific started after his time at Windsor.
“I spent the one winter in Buffalo and then I came north to Mohawk and I was with Keith (Waples) for two and a half years and then I worked for a fella by the name of Garth Gordon for a couple of years and then in my real pivotal time, I spent close to seven years with Bill Wellwood,” Wallace said. “That's a pretty good group of people and time frame to pick up what you need to do. I was confident when I left and it maybe translated into that and it worked out good. I had a group when I initially started to pick up what I needed to pick up to get started. Again, I was fortunate.”
He was also fortunate with the first horse he trained on his own.
“My parents had good friends that lived over in the Eden Mills area and they used to go to the races quite often,” he said. “(They) had a horse called Cliff Time that they bought for $250, I think. It was just a cheap, cheap horse. He was no good. They broke him as a young horse and he didn't race at 2.
“I was fortunate enough to get hold of him in his three-year-old year. At that time, I was working for Keith Waples. Gosh, I got him and he was quite different from what we have now. The breed has refined itself so much that breaking horses is not the same way. Back then, they were big, heavy-headed, big-boned and dumb and everything. That's why they were called Jugheads.
“I was fortunate to get him going again at three and, gosh, I think he won five or six in a row right off the bat. He went on to be a decent horse for us and I sold him – I think I sold him for $14,000 or $15,000. You know, I just hit a home run. That was huge money back then. Making $40 or $50 a week grooming horses and all of a sudden you've got a cheque with your name on it made out for $14,000 or $15,000. I said, geez, how long has this been going on?”
That was the first of his official win total of more than 2,000 victories and more than $38 million in purses. The real totals are higher than that as trainer statistics weren’t kept until 1992 and Wallace had been in the business a couple of decades by then.
An O’Brien Award winner in 1999 as the Canadian trainer of the year, Wallace’s victories include triumphs in the Pacing Triple Crown of 1999 with Blissfull Hall (also a Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame member) and the Breeders Crown in 2003 with Pans Culottes and 2002 with Totally Western, a win worth more than $1,000,000 that he figures is his biggest victory.
“When you race a horse for $1,000,000 and you win and you own half the horse and the horse is driven by a friend of yours (Mario Baillargeon) and the people that own him are great people, that's half a million dollars coming to you and it's very difficult to beat that,” he said. “That's huge. That's our Super Bowl, the Breeder's Crown. I've won a couple of them which doesn't happen very often. I was lucky to win two, but to win one and you own the horse, that's life-changing and it did for me. It helped me to go forward and I played off of that.”
Now he’ll be inducted into the two halls when it’s safe to hold the banquets.
“I never got involved because there was something at the end called a hall of fame. I was not familiar with that,” he said. “I'm somewhat shocked, to be honest, and certainly thankful, but all the things I've done to contribute to athletics were never done with the idea that there's a hall of fame at the end of it. They were done just through the love of the game.”
And that love of the game will keep him in it for as long as possible.
“I still like doing what I do,” Wallace said. “If you're asking me when I'm going to quit or retire, if my health stays together the way it is, I don't have a number on that. I'm going to fall off a jog cart or race bike some day and then call it a day, I guess. I still enjoy training race horses and it's that type of a job. Training race horses is purely a lifestyle. It's not necessarily a job. The pursuit of finding another champion or some good race horse is something that gets people to get their feet on the ground early and get going.
“I don't have a date or anything. I'm not even remotely considering when I may retire or call it a day, but it's all health dependent.”