The German occupation of Norway's capital city of Oslo during the Second World War ultimately paved a harness racing career for the man they call the mechanic of trotting horsepower - Per Henriksen.
Henriksen, the 2009 O’Brien Award winner for horsemanship, is renowned throughout North America and his homeland as being the ‘last resort man’ who can fix up broken down trotters and turn them into something special when others have struggled.
But had it not been for the Germans and a lack of housing in Norway in the 1940s Henriksen may never have ventured into harness racing.
“My grandfather Carl was president of the Norwegian Trotting Association (a job he held for 20 years) back then, and when my parents got married during the war years he managed to get them accommodation in a house on the Bjerke racetrack grounds. Housing was so scarce, the Germans had taken over everything,” Henriksen told Harnesslink.
The now 65-year-old said because he lived so close to the racetrack when he was growing up the harness racing bug got a hold of him at a very early age.
“I had two choices where I lived – I could make a right turn to the stables or a left towards school. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out which one I made.
“I left school when I was 15 and have been lucky I have been able to make a living from something I love – and with not much education behind me.”
Henriksen was a groom and mucked out boxes and begged for trainers to jog their horses before landing his first job out of school with Sverre Sjonberg in Oslo. He was employed by him for 18 months before transferring to the stables of champion Norway horseman Karsten Buer.
“He was a champion trainer and driver in Norway for 20 odd years and I figured that if I was ever going to make it in this game he was the man to learn from. I spent three years with him before relocating to Sweden,” Henriksen said.
That’s when he hooked up with Hakan and Berndt Lindstedt. The late Hakan was the man that led the Swedish migration to North America in the late 1970s.
“It was a big move for me to leave my homeland but as horsemen we always looked up to the Swedes because they always had the better horses. I wanted to learn more before I started my own stable and Sweden certainly taught me a great deal,” Henriksen said.
“Hakan was the first Scandinavian horseman to migrate to North America and I learnt so much from both him and Berndt. It was valuable learning curve,” he added.
Eighteen months later Henriksen returned to his homeland and worked for Per Ulven before setting up his own stable in Oslo at the age of 29.
Henriksen had his own barn for about five years and in that time built a reputation as being one of that country’s finest horsemen - but after much deliberation and postponement he finally plucked up the courage to emigrate to the United States in 1980 aged 35.
“I always wanted to go to the United States to try my luck training and driving but there was always one thing or another stopping me. It all started by me going to the Harrisburg Sales in 1979 where I was introduced to Howard Beissenger.
“I plucked up the courage and asked him for a job as his assistant trainer and he looked at me and said ‘when can you start?’ Two years later I had my own American stable and within six I had won the Hambletonian with Nuclear Kosmos. What a ride!” Henriksen said.
For 20 years Henriksen primarily trained and drove at The Meadowlands simply because as he put it – ‘that’s where the best money was’.
“But I got sick and tired of the rat race and saw how good harness racing was in Canada – especially with the slots in Ontario booming, so I decided to move again.
“On hindsight it was the best decision I have ever made. Now I have my own farm in Norwood, I work 25 horses, have a staff of four and last week I married my teenage sweetheart and recent Mildred Williams Women’s Driving Champion – Ann Karin,” Henriksen said.
“And my horses go really well up here. I couldn’t be happier,” he added.
enriksen’s O’Brien Award for Horsemanship in 2009 capped off a remarkable career for the likeable Scandinavian.
He’s won numerous stakes races which have been highlighted with a Hambletonian win by Nuclear Kosmos in 1986; three Breeders Crowns with Expressway Hanover in 1993, Oolong in 1999 and Southwind Serena in 2007. Oolong also won the Hambletonian Oaks in 1999.
But he regarded the 1980trotter, Shane T Hanover as the best horse he has trained and driven.
“Knowing what I know now about training and comparing that to what I knew back in the 1980s Shane T Hanover would be the best horse I have had anything to do with. He was a splendid trotter who won 21 of his 51 starts,” Henriksen said.
Since 1980 Henriksen has driven 997 winners and won almost $13.5 million in purses. As a trainer he currently sits on 696 wins and $10.7 million. He is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best trotting horsemen.
So why trotters and not pacers?
“Trotters are more of a challenge. I enjoy hanging them up right when no-one else can do the job. I hail from a trotting nation and although I have trained a couple of pacers in the past, it’s the trotters who excite me the most. They are in my blood.
“There is nothing more satisfying that getting someone else’s broken down horse and turning it into a winner. I get a real kick out of that.”
So what is Henriksen’s secret?
“Patience and a lot of hard work,” he said.
Even though it was still a tad early for him to single out his stake prospects in 2011, Henriksen was excited about his team.
“They are all working very well and I’m confident of another good season ahead. If I had to single out one it would be3-year-old gelding Lakefield, who has won five of his 10 starts. He lines up at Mohawk on Thursday. As for the rest it’s still too early to tell,” Henriksen said.
For the record Henriksen has had 40 training successes this season and 49 placings ($332,920) from 151 starters. His best season stakes-wise was in 2009 when he won $1.6 million with 69 wins – but he did crack the ton (103 wins) in 2007.
In the sulky Henriksen has had 38 winners and 40 placings ($211,851) from 138 starts. He recorded his best year last year saluting the judge 89 times in his familiar blue and white colours.
By Duane RANGER (editor)
(1) Nuclear Kosmos winning the 1986 Hambletonian:
(2) Southwind Serena winning the 2007 Breeders Crown 3yo Fillies Trot at the Meadowlands:
(3) Per Henriksen being interviewed about his World Trotting Derby hopeful Clerk Magistrate in 2008: