by Rich Fisher, for the USTA; photos by Chris Tully

Trenton, NJ — It has been one heck of a roller coaster ride for Ramona Hill where the Hambletonian is concerned. The journey has gone from uncertainty, to bleak dismay, to sheer euphoria, to odds-on favorite. And the race is still three days away!

In short order, the connections waited until the last minute to enter the filly, then watched disconcertingly as she fell into last place with just over a quarter-mile to go in last Saturday’s elimination. Amazingly, Andrew McCarthy drove her to victory from that point, sending shock waves through upstate New York.

The result is that Ramona Hill has been made the 5-2 morning line favorite for Saturday’s 95th Hambletonian for 3-year-old trotters at The Meadowlands.

“No pressure there, huh?” said co-owner Michelle Crawford with a laugh. “I think (fellow owner) Brad Grant has to drive his truck down from Ontario so he can hold my hand through the whole thing.”

Crawford and her husband Al own and operate Crawford Farms in Syracuse, N.Y., where Ramona Hill was bred. They also have a stake in Atlanta, the last filly to win the Hambo in 2018.

Ramona Hill sold for $70,000 at the 2018 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale to the Crawfords, Grant, Robert LeBlanc and In The Gym Partners.

“We liked her at the sale,” Crawford said. “You never know who’s going to buy your horses. We said ‘If you guys would have us, we’ll take it.’ It just worked out well we were able to get back in on 25 percent and be the breeder.”

A daughter of Muscle Hill out of Lock Down Lindy, Ramona Hill took six firsts and a third last year in seven starts while being trained by Tony Alagna. The season culminated with a victory from post 10 in the Breeders Crown for 2-year-old filly trotters at Woodbine Mohawk Park. She was then named the Dan Patch Award winner as 2-year-old Trotting Filly of the Year in 2019.

Due to COVID-19, she only raced twice this year prior to the Hambletonian eliminations, finishing third in her debut in the Reynolds Memorial before winning the Del Miller Memorial in 1:50.3 from post 10 on July 18 at The Meadowlands.

“Pulling up after that mile — and it doesn’t happen very often — but I actually got goosebumps,” McCarthy said of the Del Miller. “Hats off to the horse. I’ve just got so much respect for her. She’s just a game, tough horse, and will do whatever you ask her to do. And she enjoys it.”

When it came to entering her in the Hambo, Crawford said the decision was basically going to be made by Alagna and Grant, since he was the majority owner. But, she added, everyone would have a voice.

“We said ‘Tony, you’re the trainer, you’re going to tell us if she can handle this; and we respect Brad’s opinion and value that,” Crawford said. “I think we were all just of the opinion of ‘Yeah, why not.’ Of course, as a breeder, you’re like ‘No way, this is not happening.’

“But it happened last weekend right before the draw. It wasn’t like it was preplanned and premeditated, we just let it play out. We all made the decision together. That’s how it should be.”

So, this past Saturday night, the Crawfords lit a bonfire on their back deck and gathered around a TV with friends Chad and Heather Marshall. Chad is operations manager for Crawford Farms while Heather (formerly Reese) is a breeding manager. The foursome, which always gathers for big races, had their excitement turn to disbelief once the race got underway as Ramona Hill fell to the back.

“I had a little pit in my stomach,” Crawford said. “I was like ‘Whew, this isn’t going like I thought it would be going.’ I think everyone just wants to see their horse do well and draw the one through five for the final. I think that was on my mind at first, and then it felt like everything was just slipping away and at that point I’m like ‘Look, we just need to get in.’”

And then it happened. After trotting dead last over the first three-quarters, Ramona Hill exploded for a :25.4 final quarter to overtake the field and, unknowingly, scare the heck out of Crawford’s neighbors.

“I’m pretty sure my neighbors thought I was dying over here, or something was happening to me,” Crawford said. “It was really kind of crazy. When she came flying home, we were crazy. We were all screaming and jumping up and down. It was so exciting. I can’t imagine it coming out any other way. The feeling we had when she won, it was like she won the Hambo. It was definitely an ‘ah hah’ moment.

“I wish I were there. The people who were there were screaming ‘girl power’ as she was coming from the stretch, which gave me goose bumps. From everything I’ve read and heard, it’s your proud parent moment.”

The deck got so loud, Crawford thinks the noise carried 250 miles.

“I’m pretty sure Tony could hear me at The Meadowlands,” she said.

The victory guaranteed Ramona Hill a one-through-five post for the Hambo, and she ended up in the five hole. Getting good draws is one thing the horse can’t seem to master.

“Tony said she might be blinded by the toteboard if she ever draws a one or two,” Crawford said.

Unlucky posts have yet to deter Ramona Hill, as she gives the Crawfords another filly with a chance to make her name against the sport’s top male 3-year-old trotters. This situation is slightly different, though, as they bought into Atlanta just months before the 2018 Hambo. The emotional attachment is a little stronger this time with Ramona Hill.

“Of course it is, because we bred her,” Crawford said. “We love Lock Down Lindy, so I’m super attached to her mom. She’s actually back in foal with a full brother or sister in the belly, a Muscle Hill. We brought her to the new farm we’re building. She’s turned out up here. So you’re closer because you’re attached to the family.”

Crawford added that they have grown attached to Atlanta since they have been together for three years, but their relationship started as a financial venture.

“It was overwhelming we could buy into a filly for the price we did and then win the Hambo,” she said. “It was almost like ‘Oh my God I threw myself on the ledge and now I can peel myself back off the ledge.’ It was a lot of overwhelming feelings for a filly to win a Hambo but it was a financial relief that we made the right decision buying her at the price we did.”

In comparing the two, Crawford feels that Ramona Hill needs a little more attention.

“Atlanta always just put her head down and just did it,” she said. “She’s super sound all the time. I think that we’ve had to take a little bit of time with Ramona. Tony’s been very cautious since we started her as a 2-year-old. We’ve had to watch her knees. He was very calculated in her 2-year-old year. He saw signs of greatness there and managed her carefully.

“It’s the same thing coming back this year. She’s got some ouches and she just goes with it. Her heart just keeps going. Tony’s always watching, making sure she comes out of the race well.”

Because of those “ouches” it may be a blessing that Ramona Hill has not raced often this year.

“She hasn’t been over-raced and I think we’ve been aggressively getting race ready,” said Crawford, who plans on being at The Meadowlands this Saturday with her Ramona Hill face masks. “With what she’s shown us, she definitely deserves a shot. And you can’t leave out Andy McCarthy, who knows her so well. He’s a great judge. He and Tony have a great relationship. We rely heavily on them. And at this point I don’t see anybody jumping up and down thinking ‘You’re crazy thinking she can go with the boys.’

After the horse’s incredible effort in the eliminations, Crawford is not surprised Ramona Hill is the morning line favorite. She knows, of course, that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“Obviously she’s still got some super-stiff competition in there,” Crawford said. “She’s in tough, nobody’s going to take that for granted. I think we had a tough division on Saturday and she drove like a rock star. The fact she was dead last and rallied and came home in :25.4 tells me she’s capable of anything.

“I just always wish everybody good luck. It’s a big day for everybody. I’m sure everybody has the same angst and anxiety as I do. We’re going to drive down, stay isolated as well as we can, but enjoy it live and in person. We have quite a bit of racing that day. We’ve had a pretty exciting couple of months right now.”

And a very exciting two weeks leading up to Saturday.

$1 Million Hambletonian
PP-Horse-Driver-Trainer-ML
1-Ready For Moni-Yannick Gingras-Nancy Takter-3/1
2-Back Of The Neck-Scott Zeron-Ake Svanstedt-4/1
3-Hollywood Story-David Miller-Marcus Melander-15/1
4-Big Oil-Andy Miller-Julie Miller-15/1
5-Ramona Hill-Andrew McCarthy-Tony Alagna-5/2
6-Threefiftytwo-Daniel Dube-Luc Blais-6/1
7-Capricornus-Tim Tetrick-Marcus Melander-15/1
8-Rome Pays Off-Mattias Melander-Marcus Melander-15/1
9-Sister Sledge-Brian Sears-Ron Burke-12/1
10-Amigo Volo-Dexter Dunn-Nifty Norman-12/1