Ryan Nugent-Hopkins bought his first thoroughbred race horse in his rookie season as an Edmonton Oiler and has been building his own stable ever since. But this will be the first weekend he’s ever shipped a horse to race in Edmonton.
She’s his Yukon Belle, a filly the Oilers centre will have running in the $75,000 Distaff Stakes Saturday on Canadian Derby weekend. The Nuge, who hails from Burnaby, B.C., has been going to Hastings Park in Vancouver since he was a kid and bought his first thoroughbred at a yearling sale when he was 18.
Yukon Belle is a five-year-old who is at 12-to-1 in the morning line odds posted in the nine-horse eighth race Saturday. And, no, Nugent-Hopkins is not moving his entire horse racing operation here now that Edmonton has the first mile-long track west of Woodbine and that he married Breanne, his teenage sweetheart from his days as a Red Deer Rebel, three weeks ago in Maui.
I’ve chatted horse racing with The Nuge fairly frequently over his seven seasons as an Oiler but this is the first chance to have a legitimate excuse do it on the record for a column. He has a real passion for the ponies.
His trainer is Barb Head, wife of Mike Head who helps manage her training concern while he also works in the broadcasting business as well. He says that passion has always been easy to spot in the soft-spoken former first overall draft pick when it comes to the track.
“He texts me almost every day during the hockey season talking about horses,” said Mike. “He’s always watching. He’s invested in it. He has a passion for it. He’s looking at breeding and looking at subtle nuances and isn’t just toying with it.”
“I bought my first horse, I guess seven years ago,” said Nugent-Hopkins of his rookie year with the Oilers. “She’s eight now. But I’ve been going to the racetrack long before that. My dad owned a couple horses. My grandpa on my mom’s side was involved with horses, too. So it was kind of in the family so I was there a lot.”
Not including his wife his family is growing. “I have three at the race track now, my mare, her first baby who will be a two year old next year and one on the way. And I just bought into a two year old,” he said of Infinite Patience a real possibility to be something special next year after just having won the B.C. Cup Debutant at Hastings Park by 11 lengths.
“I knew the owner and breeder of her because they were with Barb Head, the same trainer as me. So I kind of watched her train a little bit. I really liked her then. After her first race… she dominated. I asked two or three times if I could buy in as a partner. We worked something out so I got to watch her win her next race, a stakes race, by over 11 lengths.”
As for Yukon Belle, Nugent-Hopkins decided to send her to Edmonton’s big race weekend because she needed a break. “I bought her at a yearling sale in Vancouver. She won a couple stakes races as a two year old. She was actually two-year-old of the year in B.C. At three she ran into a really tough horse, losing the Oaks that year by a neck. We’re definitely looking for a win for her. It’s been a while for her.”
Nugent-Hopkins thinks she has a chance but he won’t be here to watch her if she does win. “I won’t be able to make it,” he said of previous plans. And, no, he’s not still on his honeymoon in Hawaii. “I really wish I could. But there was no reason not to send her.”
Nugent-Hopkins is now skating in Vancouver and will drive to Edmonton in early September and begin their first year as a married couple in Edmonton, although it will not require any real adjustments. “We’ve been going steady since high school. We just made it official, I guess,” he laughs.
The new Mrs. Nuge isn’t a real horsey type. “She doesn’t have quite the same interest as I do but she definitely enjoys coming out and watching them and cheering them on.” He said he often goes with his buddies and walk around the tarmac like the other race fans. He gets a few double takes but he’s good with that. It’s pretty relaxed. A lot of people are used to seeing me around. But some want to chat or get a picture or something like that.”
Nugent-Hopkins said it’s the time of the summer where you start thinking of the coming season a bit more. “We’ve had a lot of changes with management. It will be a bit of an adjustment but we should be able to step in pretty quick and with a couple of players we’ve picked p we’re excited for everybody.”
I asked him if he’d picked out his winger yet. “No I haven’t,” he laughed. “I’ll wait to see what happens at camp. I’m sure it will sort itself out.” He can’t just take Ken Holland to a yearling sale and pick himself out one.
Original article published August 15, 2019 in the Edmonton Journal - link here