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McClure Goes 'Prime Time' In 2020

Published: January 14, 2021 7:40 pm ET

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After spending much of the past decade grinding things out at Ontario's Signature racetracks, Bob McClure has truly earned his way into Canadian harness racing's "prime time" over the last few seasons. And the new heights McClure reached in 2020 helped vault him into the limelight, and consideration once again for the O'Brien Award for Canada's Driver of the Year.

McClure, who, after eclipsing the $5 million mark for purse earnings in 2018 and 2019, established a career best in purse earnings this season, banking just shy of $7.1 million in purses -- best in the nation -- while winning 233 races. In just his third full season driving on the Woodbine Entertainment circuit, the youthful Ontario native made a major splash among Canada's best, having established himself as the first-call driver for some of the most powerful stables in the country.

"It was the people I got to drive for that stuck with me all year," McClure told Trot Insider. "Luc Blais, Ian Moore and John Pentland — others, too — you just look at the stables you drive for."

Of course, Blais trainee On A Streak gave McClure his first ever Breeders Crown — defeating the formidable likes of In Range and Venerate on Oct. 30 at Harrah's Hoosier Park — but it was another rookie trotter from the same stable that stands out to McClure as an even more memorable highlight of the season: a filly named Donna Soprano, whose ascent into trotting's elite was, if nothing else, a bit dodgy in the beginning.

"She had a little streak to her of wanting to be unruly, and I remember she came late to the baby races and Luc had just waited on her, waited on her, and put her on her own special program," McClure explained. "It was an amazing job he did just getting her to the baby races. And then, even when she got to the baby races, it was, 'Oh, this may be as far as we go.' Then she hit the races, and she almost ran behind the gate — she was unruly and got away back — but she still overpowered them. And then the next week, she got a little bit better and overpowered them. Then she got where she was really well-behaved and she was just running over them.

"And then came the night of the Peaceful Way — Luc had another one in there, and I just didn't want to leave with her, so she landed second-over behind a long, long, long shot. I hooked her three-wide up the backside, cleared to the front, shut her down and won by five. That's a major Grand Circuit race with a lot of the top fillies. And to be able to put them in a bad position, hook them three-wide up the backside at Mohawk, clear the front, shut them down, and then drive away on the field? That takes a very special horse. I think what made it more special was how great a job Luc did and how great an achievement it was to get her to that point. I think she's got to be the O'Brien Award winner — she almost beat the best colt in North America. I think if Donna Soprano goes against any colt on a regular basis, she's going to be competitive with them. On A Streak won the Breeders Crown and he can't even start her up."

Donna Soprano did much of the heavy lifting in the inaugural Mohawk Million, and after overhauling Insta Glam, was outkicked off cover by Julie Miller trainee Venerate by a scant three-quarters of a length while On A Streak finished another eight lengths back in third.

While Donna Soprano's season ended with a break in her Breeders Crown elimination at Harrah's Hoosier Park — her only start away from Mohawk and a moment that was "really discouraging" for McClure, be it due to having "just had enough of the year" or the eight-hour ship — her meteoric rise throughout the season was one of McClure's biggest takeaways.

McClure is quick to note that his 10 minutes a week in the race bike with any given horse pale greatly in comparison to the seven days a trainer invests in the same horse, but he admits too that "a lot can go wrong in that 10 minutes." But given his consistently strong performances since shifting his attention to Woodbine Mohawk Park, McClure has been able to gain the trust of the top conditioners — and it's a trust that McClure does not take lightly.

Bob McClure with Lauras Love

"You gain their trust. And the situation with John Pentland and the Determination stable, I'm usually their go-to guy. But I would say, especially the Luc Blais stable, having the confidence to know that nothing's going to change next week, having the confidence to know that you're going to ride the year out — for good or for bad — that puts you into a situation where you're working more together than you are coexisting. It makes you grateful for knowing that, during the bad weeks, you have those guys to prop you up. You really count your blessings when you're driving for people like that.

"It takes a lot to gain those people's trust, but I would say with the last few years we've had, neither of us is looking for any change."

Those lasting partnerships with top stables — further cemented by 16 wins in six-figure races this past season — have been key in McClure's rise to success ... a point that's not lost on him whatsoever. He was the primary driver for six O'Brien Award finalists -- three for trainer Luc Blais (Donna Soprano, Macho Martini and On A Streak), two for Dr. Ian Moore (Lawless Shadow and Tattoo Artist) and the aforementioned Lauras Love for John Pentland.

Tattoo Artist and Bob McClure

"If you look at how many nominees I drove, that'll tell you everything you need to know. And three were for one stable. The Determination stable is my biggest asset as a driver, and a lot of other people follow that lead. They look at that and say, 'They trust him with everything; I'll trust him with this one.' And I think, especially from the American standpoint — when a lot of the American horses came up here — they probably consider that, too. When you're driving for the top stables, they look at that and figure it's not for no reason, so they jump on. I attribute everything to the stables and the trainers behind me."

McClure, a three-time O'Brien nominee, has still yet to win Canadian harness racing's most prestigious year-end award. And given that this year's O'Brien Awards will be presented in a virtual format on Jan. 31, he, along with his wife, Jody, and son, Ryder, will take in the presentation from the comforts of home:

"We're going to stay home and relax," said McClure, whose driving schedule affords him little down time. "It'll be me, the new wife and Ryder tuning in and watching. Luckily this year we won't have to do the whole tuxedo rental; we can just kind of quietly enjoy it from home."

One aspect of the O'Brien Awards party won't change, though:

"I'm still going to drink the bottle of wine that they sent!" he concluded, with a chuckle.

The 2020 Virtual O’Brien Awards Gala takes place on Sunday, January 31, 2021 and will be available for viewing on from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. (EST).

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