Thursday, 23 September 2021 12:18

"Horses are amazing athletes"— a conversation with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Written by Curtis Stock
"Horses are amazing athletes"— a conversation with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Photo by Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

The sizzling speed. The thundering power. The graceful athleticism. Add Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' name to that word equation and you immediately think hockey. But, in this case, that would be wrong. The right answer is thoroughbred racing - something the Edmonton Oiler star forward has a deep passion for.

"I like everything about it," said Nugent-Hopkins, who has 478 points in 656 NHL games. "Especially how spectacular the horses are. It's a huge thrill to be at the racetrack and even better when you get to see your horse win."

Nugent-Hopkins has been doing a lot of the latter lately. Especially when it comes to scoring with his sensational four-year-old filly Infinite Patience, who he co-owns with the horse's breeder, William DeCoursey. Two weeks ago Infinite Patience was at her best again equalling Century Mile's track record when she very easily won the one-mile, $75,000 Northlands Distaff Handicap in 1:36.01 - the same time as Intent to Strike went last year.

It was Infinitie Patience's third win in a row and the eighth in 13 career starts. "She's feeling herself again," said Nugent-Hopkins, 28. She's a lot of fun especially now that she has her confidence back."

Infinite Patience was B.C.'s Horse of the Year when she won all five of her starts in 2019. And not just winning either. She absolutely dominated winning those five races by a total of 35 1/2 lengths. One of those wins came in the fall's Fantasy Stakes in a stakes-record time of 1:44.16 at Vancouver's Hastings Park when she won by four and a quarter lengths.

But 2020 was a disappointment when Infinite Patience was sent to Toronto's Woodbine racetrack and could only manage a third in three races. "She ran pretty good in the Fury Stakes," Nugent-Hopkins said of a third place finish in her Ontario debut. But she came up empty in her next two outings finishing a dispirited seventh by more than 17 lengths in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks and then a lacklustre sixth in the Bison City.

"Unfortunately, I don't think she liked the track very much," he said of the synthetic Tapeta racing surface. "She simply didn't run very well over it. Her mom, Montero, didn't like that surface either."

But they both love playing in the dirt. Montero won 11 races - including a stake - and over $200,000. Meanwhile, Infinite Patience has won her last three starts by more than 20 lengths - taking an allowance race by seven and a quarter lengths at Vancouver's Hastings Park and then the CTHS B.C. Sales stake by 11 lengths prior to her romp in the Northlands Distaff.

She undoubtedly would have won the Distaff — one of thee other stakes races on the Sept. 11 Derby card — more definitively if jockey Antonio Reyes had asked the talented bay daughter of Sungold even a little bit. "More than likely," agreed Nugent-Hopkins, who has played his entire 10-year career with the Edmonton Oilers after he was drafted first overall in 2011. Nugent-Hopkins recently re-signed with the Oilers to an eight-year, $41-million contract extension.

"All Antonio did was shake the lines a couple of times to get her to switch leads. Once she switched leads, she gave Antonio another burst. She was very strong. Antonio had trouble pulling her up after the race. He needed an outrider to help get her stopped. He's pretty confident on her. They vibe with each other really well. Antonio gave her a perfect ride. She likes being near the lead and she likes to run on the outside of horses and Antonio had her running just to the outside of Here's Hannah during the early going. In Toronto she was on the lead in both the Fury and the Oaks and I don't think she really liked that either."

Trained by Barbara Heads, Infinite Patience is now headed to the Oct. 15 Alberta CTHS Sales stake at Century Mile. "If all goes well we may also run her in the Oct. 29 Red Smith Handicap. We'll just have to see how she's feeling."

Both the Sales Stakes and the Red Smith are seven furlongs which is a bit of a concern to Nugent-Hopkins. "She's comfortable sprinting but I think she prefers going a little longer. The Northlands Distaff was a mile but I think she'd really like a mile and an eighth."

Nugent-Hopkins knew Infinite Patience was destined for big things before she even raced. "I was at the track one morning watching another horse I owned, Yukon Belle, when I saw this two-year-old which Barb also trained. It was Infinite Patience. She was exceptional just training. I tried to get involved with (Infinite Patience) before she even raced but it didn't work out. Then she won her maiden race and did it so easily that I approached Bill (William DeCoursey) again. Lucky for me Bill agreed to partner with me and ever since we've been partners."

Yukon Belle was no slouch either. "She was a good filly in her own right," Nugent-Hopkins said of the mare that, in her two-year-old season, won a pair of stakes races at Hastings in 2016 and was so impressive that, like Infinite Patience, was named B.C.'s Two-Year-Old champion.

"But then she ran into an extremely talented horse named Daz Lin Dawn," Nugent-Hopkins recalled of a filly that went a perfect seven-for-seven in 2017. "We almost got Daz Lin Dawn in the B.C. Oaks. She just ran out of space and finished second by a neck. A few more steps and we might have got her.

"Yukon Belle was very talented too," he said of the daughter of Drosselmeyer who won the Belmont Stakes in 2010 and the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2011. "She's a bit smaller than Infinite Patience but she was a really smart horse. She's been retired for a couple of years," he said of the mare that won just under $170,000.

Nugent-Hopkins currently has two other horses at the track: Kapalua Candy and Sanawar. Kapalua Candy is a daughter of Zenya, the first horse he owned and which he bought at the 2014 B.C. Yearling Sale. Nugent-Hopkins was just 18 at the time. Zenya gave Nugent-Hopkins his first win as an owner in 2015 albeit through the back door when the first horse across the finish line, Silver Ovation, was disqualified and Zenya, was elevated from second to first. It was horse racing's version of going to video replay.

Nugent-Hopkins affinity for horse racing came naturally. His parents, Roger Hopkins and Deb Nugent, liked going to the track. "My dad still goes to the track a lot," said Nugent-Hopkins, who was raised in Burnaby, B.C.

Roger also owned and bred a few horses. And his grandfather on his mother's side, Len Nugent, owned a few horses too. "My bother, Adam, and I would go to the track on a lot of weekends. I spent a lot of time at the track," said Nugent-Hopkins, who has been to the Kentucky Derby.

"We used to go stand by the outer railing. You get hooked pretty quick when you're at the fence and see up close just how powerful and fast they are. You really appreciate how special these horses are. They're all fast and amazing animals. You get just as nervous when you run a cheap horses as you do when — if you're lucky — a stakes horse.

"Horses are amazing athletes," said the man who should know about talented athletes. "I always loved it but I never thought I'd get involved in it the way I am. It kind of just happened," said Nugent-Hopkins, who loves reading up on bloodlines and pedigrees.

Personable, polite and very low-keyed, Nugent-Hopkins gets very animated when one of his horses is running. "He really gets excited when he talks about horse racing," said Heads. "It's definitely in his blood. He's become a student of the game. He's very sharp and he's a very quick learner. He's on top of a horse's breeding. He wants to know how mares are producing and how studs are doing. He's right on top of the game. But, more than anything, he's such a good guy."

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