Trainer Per Henriksen is old enough to know that you’re never too old to take a shot in the Breeders Crown.
The 70-year-old native of Norway, who is based out of Norwood, Ontario, is back in this year’s Breeders Crown presented by Mullinax Ford at the Meadowlands in New Jersey on Saturday night, seven years since he last raced in the championship event.
He sends out Muscle Hustle in the $500,000 Three-Year-Old Colt Trot, a race stacked with some solid contenders, including Bar Hopping, Southwind Frank and Marion Marauder, each of whom has won some prominent stakes races this season.
Muscle Hustle has been a topnotch horse this season on the Ontario Sires Stakes circuit, including setting a Canadian and OSS record on a five-eighths mile track, banking almost US$200,000 in 14 starts.
The horse was sent to Henriksen as a two-year-old by Robert Bergh, Sweden’s top trainer, who was having some issues with the son of Muscle Mass. Henriksen is considered somewhat of a horse whisperer because of his ability to figure out the head cases. In the case of Muscle Hustle, Henriksen decided to put trotting hopples on the colt early in his career. This will the last time Henriksen harnesses the colt, who is scheduled to be sent back to Sweden after the Breeders Crown.
“If I didn’t think my horse had a shot to win, I would not spend $7,500 for to go in the race,” he said.
“It’s always a pleasure going back to the Breeders Crown when you have horses that you think are good enough to compete. I thought I had three that were good enough to compete, but I got one to the final and he qualified really good (with driver Chris Christoforou) and Chris said he’s as good as any of these horses with the right trip. We drew the five hole, which is good, so we’re optimistic.”
Henriksen has had 22 previous starters in the Breeders Crown for $1.2 million in earnings and has won three times, all in the Three-Year-Old Filly Trot: Expressway Hanover in 1993, Oolong in 1999 and Southwind Serena in 2007. Expressway Hanover and Oolong won at short prices, Southwind Serena at 50-1. She is notable for being Yannick Gingras’ first Crown win and is also the dam of the world champion and Breeders Crown freshman winner Mission Brief.
“Any time you can win a Breeders Crown it means a lot, there’s no doubt about that,” Henriksen said. “That’s something special. Yes, I’ll take a new owner if they pop up with a good horse, don’t misunderstand me. Not that I need it, that’s not the point. I’m 70 years old. I just don’t want to live in a tent when I’m done doing this.
“I just had a (physical) and the doctor said he couldn’t find anything wrong with me. He said, ‘Per, you’re like a 55-year-old – your heart rate, everything. You don’t have any aches or pains. You’re so lucky, you don’t know how lucky you are.’
“If I can win the Breeders Crown, it will be such a pleasure, most of all for the people around me who support me all the time – my owners, my support staff. It’s not going to change my lifestyle, let’s put it that way, but it’s a joy.
“It would mean a lot to me to win, especially with Robert Bergh,” he added. “He’s my friend. I’ve sent horses to him in Sweden as four-year-olds when I thought they were better off there than in North America. Muscle Hustle struggled with an allergic problem all summer and all fall. He was supposed to go to the Hambletonian and I thought I had a really good shot, but he got an allergy. We got him on some serum but it didn’t help him enough. I think this horse is good enough to go with any of them. If he’s 100 percent and on his game and gets the right trip, he can beat any of them.”
This has been an interesting year for Henriksen. He won the Ahlsells Invitational driver championship for legends of the sport in Sweden.
“That’s a sign that you’re getting old when you get invited to a legends’ race,” he quipped.
He also posted his 1,000th career training win in North America.
“It feels good (winning 1,000). At my age, everything feels good,” he said. “I had the two best three-year-old trotting colts in Ontario this year with Muscle Hustle and Bee In Charge. I had another one, Blenheim, that was knocking on the door in the Grand Circuit. How often do you get a trio of three-year-old trotting colts that can compete on the Grand Circuit? One won $300,000 and the other one about $200,000. I can’t complain.
“To get those kind of horses to train is just a pleasure. Two of those horses were ones that other people couldn’t get going and that gave me even more joy.”
Henriksen came to North America from Europe in the 1980s and won the 1986 Hambletonian with Nuclear Kosmos. He was voted the O’Brien Award for Horsemanship in Canada in 2009 when he won more than $1.6 million as a trainer – his third $1 million season in a row – and almost $700,000 as a driver.
He has been cutting back on his drives in the last two years, steering young horses to figure them out and then turning them over to catch drivers.
“I like to drive my two-year-olds for awhile to take care of them,” he said. “In my opinion a horse is like a bar of soap. There’s only that many washes in it. If you use it too hard early, there’s nothing left at the end. Anybody can correct me if they think I’m wrong, but I think I can keep some of these horses trotting when they may break stride with catch drivers. I might not be able to make them go that fast. I might lose a fifth of a second, but most of the times you’re better off going a fifth of a second slower and keep them trotting.”