Hoosiers dreaming big with Hambletonian starter Hat Trick Habit

The colt will race for trotting’s ultimate prize this afternoon for owners John McGill and Brian Carsey and trainer Scott DiDomenico

by James Platz

John McGill and Brian Carsey have made a name for themselves in the Midwest playing the claiming game at Hoosier Park Racing & Casino. This afternoon, their recently-acquired sophomore Hat Trick Habit will line up behind the starting gate in the Hambletonian, harness racing’s pinnacle. It’s a big move for two Hoosiers that have thrived in overnight races and are getting their feet wet in the Grand Circuit, and the chance of a lifetime.

“It’s a dream come true. But, honestly, I thought it was out of my league,” said Carsey, one-half of the partnership. “We’re just looking for nicer horses to compete on the Grand Circuit. We’re working our way up through the ranks.”

Carsey and McGill have been heavily involved in racing via claimers for several years. But their plan has always been to keep moving forward, so they’ve invested in yearlings to compete in the Indiana Sires Stakes program. And in the last 18 months they’ve taken the Grand Circuit plunge, purchasing free-for-all pacers Missile J and Manhattan Beach. It’s been an intentional progression, and the two businessmen are picking their spots.

So far they haven’t won any big races, but their investments have paid off. Missile J has banked more than $400,000 since the acquisition, finishing fifth in last year’s Breeders Crown final, third in the Levy final, Dan Rooney and Dayton Derby, and second in the Hoosier Park Pacing Derby. Manhattan Beach has earned right at $150,000 for the two.

“We’ve got a taste of it and we want a little more of it,” Carsey said of competing on the Grand Circuit.

So when the opportunity to buy a horse eligible to the Hambletonian materialized more than a month ago, the partners mulled the idea. It was the chance of a lifetime, but it was also going to extend them more than any horse had previously. Was it worth the risk? The pursuit of Grand Circuit competition had to be balanced against the chance to get a return on investment.

“It’s almost like the businessman in me fights the side of me that wants to have fun,” McGill said. “We kind of do this for fun. When you spend that kind of money, it puts more worry in it for us. Honestly, we really had to think of this one for a while.”

Scott DiDomenico, who trains Missile J for the partnership, brought Hat Trick Habit to their attention. The son of Donato Hanover is Pennsylvania bred and Kentucky eligible. As a freshman he earned just shy of $170,000 and winning the $250,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes final. The colt had been owned by Fred Monteleone, who passed away last October. He was heavily staked for the 2018 campaign.

“The lady we worked with was super understanding with us. She told us we could take the horse, take him to our track and train him, check him out and look him over,” McGill said. “That helped Brian and I a lot.”

McGill and Carsey pulled the trigger on the deal on June 29 and Hat Trick Habit was entrusted to DiDomenico. In his first start for the new connections, the sophomore trotted to a 1:52.3 victory at The Meadowlands. Sent off as the favorite, he trotted clear by nearly four lengths at the wire. He would make unfortunate breaks in his next two starts before racing second in the Reynolds Memorial July 28 in his final Hambletonian prep. In the race he finished a length back of fellow Hambletonian entrant Crystal Fashion after taking the lead after the quarter and cutting the mile, completing the mile in 1:53.

“Certainly we’ve had a few challenges,” said the 35-year-old trainer. “We’ve gone to the drawing board with some equipment and shoeing changes. I’ve think we’ve got his head in a good place now.”

McGill said that they had taken a wait and see approach as to whether they would drop Hat Trick Habit into the box for the Hambletonian. In fact, knowing he was going to be in meetings all day on Tuesday, he phoned his partner that morning to see if they needed to discuss the colt.

“He said, ‘I don’t think there’s much to discuss. Scott’s entered him already,’” McGill said with a laugh. “That’s how keyed up Scott is. Now, the pressure is on.”

Hat Trick Habit will be DiDomenico’s first Hambletonian starter, and one of three horses he will send out on Saturday’s card. While only having the colt for a month, he feels the trotter has a chance to represent himself well in his elimination. Drawing post eight in the nine-horse first elim, Hat Trick Habit is 12-1 in the morning line and will be driven by Hall of Famer Brian Sears.

“I certainly wasn’t hoping to draw the eight, but I’ve got a very good driver, and I think I have a very good horse,” DiDomenico said. “I thought he raced great in his last start. I think the part that most satisfied me is that he sat behind Yannick (driving Hill Street) for a quarter mile and went back to the lead. He was settled, he was trotting clean and he was going strong.”

McGill is optimistic that Hat Trick Habit can reverse some of the partnership’s bad luck in the Grand Circuit. If the colt can finish in the top five in his elimination, he’ll advance to the lucrative Hambletonian final. His division includes Goodtimes final winner Wolfgang, Crystal Fashion and the filly Atlanta. The owner will not be on hand in person to watch his newest investment compete against the sport’s top sophomore trotting colts. Instead, he’ll be at home with his mother, Clara, and a slew of family celebrating her 80th birthday. But he’ll be following along from the Midwest with great interest.

“My dad died a few months ago, and I just thought it wasn’t a good time to leave,” he said. “The Grand Circuit is so exciting. It’s going to be something I just never thought we’d get to. It’s a dream to have a horse in the Hambletonian.”