Friday, September 21, 2007

Who can forget Hank Wilberts?

Henry Wilberts of Wheaton gets ready to take Lot A Torque, one of his harness-racing horses, back to the barn after a recent training session.
Wilberts is Minnesota’s oldest active harness racer.

Photo and article by Helmut Schmidt, Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Henry Wilberts knows that one of these days he may have to stop driving.
It’s just a toss-up whether the 79-year-old with the closecropped gray hair, weatherbeaten face and big, work-hardened hands will give up the car keys or the reins to his harness racing rig first.
At this point, the best bet is on the car keys.
“I tell you, when you ask your horse to go and he takes off, and you pass everyone else on the track, it’s fun,” Wilberts said.
Wilberts has raised, bred and trained horses since he was 11 years old, many of them draft horses.
He started racing in 1999 after a trip to Canada to buy some buggy horses also included a sweet deal on two harness racing carts and the accompanying tack.
“They called me a plow horse jockey when I first started,” Wilberts said. “I said I didn’t care what they called me as long as they look out for me.”
His best day was at a track in the northeastern North Dakota town of Hamilton in 2003, where he drove to two wins, he said. But he’s also won at St. Peter and other tracks, he said.
He just closed out his season with a weekend of racing at the North Dakota Horse Park in Fargo.
“That’s a great place to race,” he said.
Wilberts is Minnesota’s oldest current harness racer, according to Greg Budach, secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota Harness Racing Association.
Though Wilberts is “new to the game,” compared with drivers who grew up with the sport, he’s a safe competitor and good to his horses, the Janesville man said.
“He’s pretty gung-ho about it,” Budach said. “He’s safe. He knows enough to stay out of trouble.”
One of Wilberts’ favorite horses is Lot A Torque.
“You better have your Wheaties in the morning” to handle that horse, he said.
He’s rehabilitating Torque after the horse was injured in a race earlier this year. While he does that, he also plans to break Torque’s brother, T-Bone, to the saddle and to harness racing.
Henry – Hank to almost everyone he knows – and his wife, Milly, moved to Wheaton seven years ago from the Vergas area. Having a track in town with an acreage for horses was the reason, they said.
He was born in Oakes, N.D., and he worked as a pipe welder, moving his family around the country until it was time to settle down so his three sons could go to school.
They lived in Goodland – between Grand Rapids and Hibbing – and then moved to Bricelyn in southeastern Minnesota, where he owned a welding shop and a liquor store.
In 1976, they bought a place on Madison Lake east of Mankato, running a restaurant for two years. After that, they moved to Lake Lida near Pelican Rapids, where he ran a welding shop. They later lived near Vergas.
He’s now planning a winter of training and a spring campaign that starts with a race at a new track in Columbus Township, near the Twin Cities suburb of Forest Lake.
“Train, train, train,” said Millie
Wilberts of her husband’s schedule. And the horses will always know who’s the boss, she said.
“He’s not the horse whisperer,” she said. “He’s the horse hollerer.”
“When I speak to the horse, they know I’m talking to them,”
Wilberts agrees.
Wilberts keeps three horses and a mule at his farmstead on the north edge of Wheaton.
Toward the end of a breezy mid-September day, he takes Torque out of the barn for a stint in the exercise ring.
“He gets kind of psyched up” when he thinks he’s going to race, Wilberts said, as Torque, who snorts and prances, practically pulls him out of the barn.
“Hey, you slow down a little bit. Take it easy,” Wilberts says as he harnesses Torque to the exerciser. It takes a few passes around the circle before Torque stops tossing his head and settles into an effortless, consistent pace. The horse’s excitement has Wilberts smiling. “He’s full of hell, ain’t he? … Oh, he’s a good horse to drive,”
Wilberts said.

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