Horse racing was not on Ben Wallace’s radar for a life path, let alone a 50-year training career. But the winds of chance carried the Kitchener, Ont. native away from his life as an athlete into what became and continues to be a storied career.
And meanwhile, as a global pandemic raged in 2020, Wallace’s accomplishments earned him the honour of induction into both the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
“I never got involved because there was something at the end called a hall of fame. I was not familiar with that,” Wallace said in an interview with Guelph Today. “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.”
Wallace spent much of his youth playing whatever sport was in season. Born in Kitchener but moving to Guelph when he was a year old, Wallace spent much of his time at Exhibition Park, a neighborhood with many different sporting arenas. In baseball, a high-school aged Wallace served as pitcher for the Guelph C-Joys as they won the Ontario Baseball Association Senior Championship in 1966. Then while at the University of Waterloo, he played as a defensive back on the football team, winning the 1969 Ontario championship in his rookie season. In 2008, the University of Windsor honoured the 1969 team with its Hall of Fame’s Team Achievement Award.
Though, with many sports prospects diverting in several directions, Wallace abandoned his geography degree and shifted his focus to harness racing when braving one winter in Buffalo, N.Y.
“[The fella I started with] told me if I make it through winter I’d be in the game the rest of my life,” Wallace said. “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.”
From Keith Waples, Wallace moved to work for Garth Gordon before then working for about seven years with Bill Wellwood.
“That’s a pretty good group of people and time frame to pick up what you need to do,” Wallace said. “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.”
On his own, Wallace has won nearly 2,000 races and banked over $38 million. He famously campaigned Blissfull Hall to an O’Brien Award in 1999 as well as a sweep of the Pacing Tiple Crown. He also campaigned Breeders Crown winners Totally Western (2002) and Pans Culottes (2003), the former of which won in a Breeders Crown event carrying a near $1-million purse.
“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,” Wallace said. “That’s huge. That’s our Super Bowl, the Breeders 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 72 years old, Wallace continues to train in Puslinch, Ont. and will continue on for the foreseeable future.
“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.”