Nathan Sobey just spent a week in Las Vegas. The way this year has been going it's a wonder he didn't walk out of there with the Mirage hotel/casino in one pocket and Caesar's Palace in another.
There is hot and then there is Sobey hot. Fifth in Canada with a magnificent .445 Universal Trainer Rating and sixth in Canada for driving with a Universal Driver Rating percentage of .371 Sobey said this year has been a "wicked dream."
But it's no dream. It's as real as rain. The Alberta horseman has had a season for the ages. He has been the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens or Babe Ruth of 1921. As a trainer Sobey has won with 65 horses from 234 starts along with 51 seconds and 33 thirds. As a driver Sobey has 64 wins from 278 outings. He also finished second 46 times and third 41 times.
"Every horse in the barn has had a stellar year," said Sobey, who turns 30 on Friday. "The hardest thing to come to terms with is realizing this kind of a year doesn't happen all the time. It's been a freak year. I'd love to follow it up again and again. But I have to understand that I may never have a year like this again."
It's not just the sum total either that should have Sobey voted Alberta's top horseman. Four horses in particular - all top candidates for year-end honours - have had especially great campaigns in 2021 for Sobey: Icy Blue Scooter, Exotic Dragon, Divine Art and Sometime Somewhere.
Icy Blue Scooter, with this past Friday's win at Century Mile giving him eight wins this year, should have him in line for champion aged horse. "Icy Blue Scooter has been remarkable," said Sobey, who owns the eight-year-old with Diane Bertrand and Robert Gilhespy. "He's my pet. He's a very personable horse. It's his willingness to win races that sets him apart. He figured out how to win and he loves to win."
And how. Icy Blue Scooter has been to the winner's circle 37 times for career earnings approaching $300,000. And this from a horse who was claimed for $20,000 on Oct. 6, 2018. "He was on a lot of people's radar. He had been racing for $16,000 and I think a lot of people were waiting for him to drop back down to $16,000," said Sobey. "Finally I said to myself that if I do wait there would be multiple claims on him. So I jumped on him. We only made some minor changes and put him on a different program."
The little changes obviously worked. Coming into that $20,000 claiming race Icy Blue Scooter had gone 18 straight races without a win. After Sobey took him he never saw a claiming price again. "He's turned into an amazing race horse. Even now, at the age of eight, he can still slug away. Once he makes the front he's a hard horse to get past. He will fall asleep on you though. You have to keep him busy."
Exotic Dragon, who also went wire-to-wire on Friday for her 10th victory in 18 starts, is in a three-horse mix for three-year-old filly of the year - a battle between her, Graceful Horizon and Burning Hot, that will probably be settled on New Year's Eve in the Century Casino Mile Filly Pace. (The Western Canada Pacing Derby is also on the Dec. 31 card.)
"Those three specimens are three of the best three-year-old fillies ever raised in Alberta," said Sobey. "If you finish third to any of those three fillies you can chalk it up as a win." If there are eliminations to the Filly Pace they will take place this Friday at Century Mile. The same is true for the Pacing Derby with eliminations also set for this Friday night.
Exotic Dragon, owned by Robert Jones, came into last Friday's win after a three-race sweep of the Murphy Series at Surrey, B.C.'s Fraser Downs. "Dave Kelly drove her in the first leg and he didn't have to use her at all," Sobey said of the four-and-a-half length victory. "I was there for the next leg and it was a walk in the park. In the November 4th $75,000 Final she didn't get off the gate as good as I wanted. But when she made the front the race was over"
She won by five. Under wraps. She won in 1:55 3/5. I've gone training miles with her faster than she had to pace," Sobey said of Exotic Dragon, who also won the $50,000 Shirley McClellan and the $45,000 Diamond Stakes. "She crossed the finish line with the bit in her mouth and something saved."
Like Icy Blue Scooter, Exotic Dragon fortunately didn't catch the equine virus which went through Century Mile forcing the track to miss two weeks of racing.
"Shutting down was the right thing to do," said Sobey. "There were 35 horses scratched because of the virus on opening night, November 19. The Alberta Standardbred Horsemen's Association, Horse Racing Alberta and Century Mile did what was best for the whole industry. It would have been too easy to put in a horse that you didn't know was sick behind the gate. The animals always come first. We're a gambling sport but the horses always come first."
Then there is Divine Art, a two-year-old filly, who won three of her six starts including the Super Finals, Stardust and Emerald Stakes. Divine Art is a slight favourite to win Juvenile Filly of the Year honours over Saphire Blue, the latter winning five of her six starts for trainer Harold Haining with the only loss coming in the Super Finals when she was parked the entire mile after drawing the outside eighth post position. "Divine Art was green to start. But she became a powerhouse very quickly."
And, finally, there is Sometime Somewhere, who has a very legitimate chance of winning Horse of the Year accolades. Sobey believes the four-year-old who is also owned by Stony Plain's Jones, will prove to be better than even Icy Blue Scooter. Sometime Somewhere won 14 of his 20 starts this year including seven in a row and nine of 11 during one torrid stretch.
"I think Sometime Somewhere will take a mark of 1:49 at some point. I believe he will be one of the fastest pacers to ever come out of the west. We'll probably find that out next summer. I keep telling Bob (Jones) that he's got a really nice horse. He was second (by 2 1/4 lengths) to Icy Blue Scooter last Friday but I thought Sometime Somewhere could beat him. He can't quite get to the old man yet."
Like Divine Art and Exotic Dragon, Sobey got Sometime Somewhere when Canadian Hall-of-Famer Keith Clark, easily the best harness horsemen that Alberta has ever produced, announced he was retiring this summer.
"I got a call from a friend of mine one afternoon and he gave me the heads up that Bob Jones had called him and asked for my phone number. Then I got a call from Keith saying I better get some stalls ready - that I was going to get some horses coming my way. And then I got a phone call from Bob asking if I would take him as a client. I changed a few little things and Sometime Somewhere just took off. He learned how to race and progressively improved to the point where he could be Horse of the Year."
Having one great horse in a season is special. Having two possible champions is outstanding. Three? Well that's something you can only dream about. Four? That's simply off the charts. How, after all this, Sobey wasn't a finalist for the O'Brien Award for Outstanding Canadian Horseperson is close to criminal. "I'm not bothered by it," said Sobey. "It would have been nice to have been considered for an O'Brien. But Dave Kelly is just as deserving. It gives me something to work toward."
And to think this delicious year for Sobey started off so miserably. "Some of the Covid restrictions were lifted and we were finally able to race again on May 18. Opening day, first start of the year and I got into a wreck with a horse named Sintalua who was trained by Kelly Hoerdt. A horse broke stride and there was a spill. Daryl Thiessen and I both went down. Neither of us could avoid it. I was sent flying. I landed on my head and it knocked me out. The next thing I knew Daryl and I were on the way to the hospital. I also banged up my hip pretty bad. I was out for three weeks."
"That was the start of 2021. So, no, with Covid and that accident I never saw this kind of a year coming. It's amazing really. At no point in time did I think we would put up the numbers we have. I'd have a good week and I'd think that was good and if I could have another week even half as good I'd be happy. The good weeks just kept coming. It just kept snowballing and away we went."
"I couldn't do it without the help from my owners who have given me so any nice horses to train and the girls in the barn who keep everything running. The staff works amazingly well together. There's just so many people behind my operation for the reason I'm in the position I am."
Even so, Sobey still isn't satisfied. "I might go east for a bit and give it a go for three months in the new year. I'm talking with the owners and working on the details now. Maybe I'll take a half dozen horses and look for some new stock. As I've learned over the past several years the guys making the money and winning races are continually refreshing their stock."
"I've invested in a ton of babies right now. I own three yearlings and the former partners with Keith Clark have given me about 10 more babies. I'm not done yet. I'm looking to acquire some more horses. I'd like to buy some three-year-olds and take advantage of some of that stakes money in Ontario. It's been an unbelievable year. It's been a wicked dream."
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