As the Alberta racing meet wraps up on Saturday, Feb. 4 before a scheduled five-week winter break, the province’s 2022 leading money-winning trainer, Nathan Sobey, will be noticeably absent.
One week from today, the 31-year-old Sturgeon County, Alta. horseman will be attending the 2022 O’Brien Awards Black Tie Gala in Mississauga, Ont., celebrating the achievements of his former stable star Divine Art, who is a finalist in the Three-Year-Old Pacing Filly category.
This time last year, Sobey also happened to be in Ontario for a temporary stint before returning to his home province to focus on the lucrative stakes season that Divine Art ruled.
Divine Art is the only 2022 O’Brien finalist that was campaigned in Western Canada and she is in the running to become the only Alberta-sired three-year-old pacing filly winner. She is up against the Ontario-sired, two-time divisional finalist Silver Label.
Trained and driven by Sobey, Divine Art was invincible through her last 13 races of the season.
“We thought maybe there was going to be consideration, but to be a finalist is definitely a surprise,” admitted Sobey, who immediately called his parents when he learned the exciting news that Divine Art was nominated for the national award.
The Outrageous Art-Keystone Divine filly was bred by Sobey’s mother Karen along with Diane Bertrand, who retained ownership with partners Robert Jones of Stony Plain, Alta., and John Hind of Calgary, Alta.
"I couldn’t believe it,” Sobey told Trot Insider. “My first call was to my mom. I just let her know. I said, ‘Your homebred filly, your girl is finally gonna get recognized on the national stage.’ So, my first call was to mom and dad and then I called all the owners to let them know and, right away, it was the same message right across the board: ‘Alright, let’s book our tickets!’ We’re all going out, we’re all gonna have a good time. Win or lose, it’s just going to be special being there.”
Divine Art made it look easy as she reeled off one win after another from July through December, but it took some patience to get her on the right path following an unexpected start to her sophomore campaign.
“As a two-year-old, she was obviously very strong,” recalled Sobey. “She was a little green at the start and then towards the end of the year, she really started to show that she was going to be something special.
“The three-year-old year definitely didn’t start the way I wanted it to. When I got back from Ontario, my first time kind of having a look at her, it was to the point where I was prepared to call the owners and say, ‘Listen, we probably have a broodmare on our hands.’ I don’t know what had happened; whether it was an injury while she was turned out or something happened on the track that I didn’t know about.
“We kind of had to push her back and miss the open stakes in B.C., but the year started good [once she got going]. She got sick in that first three-year-old stakes race [the Shirley McClellan Breeders Stakes] -- I think she finished third -- and then after that, once we got her healthy, she was just an absolute weapon.”
A resume-boosting victory in the $112,910 Century Casinos Filly Pace at Century Mile was her richest victory while other highlights included taking a 1:53.2 lifetime mark in the Gord & Illa Rumpel Memorial Stakes at Century Downs and defending her Alberta Super Final title with an effortless victory.
Other fillies may tire as the season progresses, but Divine Art never waned, even defeating older mares in what Sobey considers to be her best race, a Fillies & Mares Preferred, on Nov. 18 at Century Mile.
“The race that stands out to me was the day that Stash The Cookies -- you know, a track record holder, :51 pacer -- looked her in the bridle and this filly just kicked into a new gear and left her in the dust. I get we didn’t go a whole ton of fractions, but on a mile track like that, you would have thought Stash The Cookies would have at least hung with her, but this mare…driving her is almost like all for show, like she is all natural talent. When you try to get by her, I wish you the best, but you’re hard pressed to pass her.”
Not many did. Divine Art finished no worse than fourth in her 17 sophomore starts, ending the year with a total of 14 wins and $253,767 in earnings.
Sobey is quick to give credit where credit is due for the filly’s success.
“You know, I’d love to say that I can take the credit for her development and all of it and just say that it was all me, but she was actually purchased and broke and started, and I guess basically trained down, by an O’Brien Award winner, being Keith Clark, a Hall of Famer,” noted Sobey, who took on many of the owners associated with the Clark stable when he retired in 2021. “So, a lot of credit goes to Keith and his crew, but I definitely can’t leave out, you know, me and my staff, in particular Robin Chase. Robin has looked after her right from day one when Keith purchased her. And then, when I took over for Keith, Robin came with the horses and Robin did a tremendous job taking care of this filly and making sure that I was always aware of anything that might be going on.
“But to have my name tied to it, you know, it’s an honour, it’s not something that a lot of people get to experience, especially being from this part of the world. So, I’m just gonna be thankful that my name is tied to a horse like this and enjoy every minute of it.”
Divine Art was sold mid-December to California trainer Gerry Longo and has continued her winning momentum stateside. She has extended harness racing's longest active win streak to 15 while racing at Cal Expo, with an eye on the upcoming California stakes program next.
While it was bittersweet parting ways with Divine Art, Sobey has turned his focus to developing the next star from a stable of 32 that includes another promising filly.
"I’ve got her [two-year-old] full sister in the barn and that’s kind of the one I look forward to sitting behind every day," said Sobey. "It’s uncanny already the mannerisms and how she carries herself, the similarities. It gives a guy hope. Maybe this one can be similar to her sister and follow in that same path."
But first, a well-deserved vacation to Ontario is in order.
“I wouldn't miss it,” said Sobey of the O’Brien Awards Black Tie Gala. “I think it’s gonna be a blast after two years of virtual [events] and now we're going back to something live. There are no losers in the evening. We’re all there to celebrate the champions in harness racing. So, I think everyone will be pretty pumped.”