CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Lori Hennessey gets goosebumps when she thinks of the Gold Cup & Saucer.
“There’s nothing more exciting,” the Charlottetown native said. “Even if it is pouring rain, when they shut those lights off and they parade the horse on the spotlight, there’s nothing like it.”
The Gold Cup & Saucer is the most prestigious harness race in North America, but for many people it’s so much more than a race.
It’s the premier event for the biggest week of the summer in Prince Edward Island – Old Home Week – a time for people living off-Island traditionally to come home and spend time with family and for tourists to visit the province.
“It’s pretty special,” Hennessey said. “Everybody comes home for Old Home Week.”
The week has always been a busy one for her family, which has a rich harness racing history.
Lori’s birthday is Aug. 17, her sister, Linda (Bubby), was born on Aug. 18 and their brother, Jody, and their father, Joe, were born on Aug. 19.
“It would always land on Old Home Week, those three days,” Lori said.
Lori and her sister, Francie, both work at The Guardian and were thrilled to hear the news the company will be the title sponsor for the big race after a three-year deal was signed earlier this week.
“Woohoo,” Lori said upon hearing the news.
“We’re excited,” Francie added.
They grew up with The Evening Patriot sponsoring the Gold Cup & Saucer and are pleased the company is back in the title position. Lori joined The Guardian in 1989 and Francie joined her a couple of years later.
Their brother, Wally, won the race in 2001 and 2005 and is a hall of fame driver with more than 9,600 career victories.
“It is such a prestigious race (and) not just if you’re from Prince Edward Island,” he said. “The Gold Cup and Saucer is world-renowned.”
Wally said any driver, including himself, can get butterflies before a Gold Cup start.
“There is a lot of nerves going into the race, but as a driver . . . once you get into the sulky behind the horse and get on the track, it’s business as usual,” he said.
He noted the big race does present a bit of a wrinkle with the pomp and ceremony meaning horses can be on the track 25-40 minutes more than normal before the starter’s gates close.
“Horses are athletes the same as we are, and when they have a change like that some are able to adapt to it and some aren’t,” Wally explained.
“It’s just amazing. It’s like a good coffee, if you get the right brew, you’re going to draw the crowd, and evidently the people seem to like this.”
Francie recalled meeting Wally early in the night before he won his first Gold Cup & Saucer.
“He said, ‘I’ll see ya’s in the winner’s circle’,” she said, quickly reflecting back to the memorable race. “He was dead last. Coming on the end, his horse just went right from the very back right to (the front). It was unreal.”
It is part of what makes the big race so special to so many people.
Guardian columnist Fred (Fiddler) MacDonald has covered many of the races for this newspaper. He said what separated it from other races was always taking the best horses, whether they be from the New England states or eastern Canada.
“We see them on TV at Yonkers and the Meadowlands and then the next thing you see them out here,” he said from the track.
The race has also spurred interest in the ownership side of the sport.
“People would buy horses to try and get in the Gold Cup & Saucer,” MacDonald explained. “It’s so popular that guys are still, to this day, trying to buy horses to win the Gold Cup & Saucer.”
Mel Jenkins was the manager at the track when the race was born.
It was a different time when there were 28 race tracks across the province and every farm had a horse. Jenkins recalled the publicity The Patriot-sponsored race generated in the community leading to large crowds on race day.
“We found that by doing this we got headlines on the front page of the newspaper, whether it was The Patriot or The Guardian,” he said.
“The grounds would be full. The grandstand was a double-decker grandstand at that time and it would hold 6,000-7,000 people,” he explained. “Down below there wasn't room to move – there was so many people.”
Jenkins marvelled at the staying power of the Gold Cup & Saucer.
“It’s just amazing,” he said. “It’s like a good coffee, if you get the right brew, you’re going to draw the crowd, and evidently the people seem to like this.”