How Al Crawford’s promise to his dying father led to Hambletonian glory

Twelve years ago, Jim Crawford’s dying wish was for his son to keep Crawford Farms in the family. Saturday, Al and Michelle Crawford more than made good on that promise when the filly they bred beat the boys in the 95th Hambletonian.

by James Platz

Al and Michelle Crawford remember the recent conversation that led to Ramona Hill’s entry into the 95th Hambletonian, foregoing the $600,000 Hambletonian Oaks to take on the boys and a shot at the lion’s share of the $1 million purse.

Last fall, the Muscle Hill filly delivered a Breeders Crown championship for trainer Tony Alagna and the partnership of Brad Grant, Robert Leblanc, In the Gym Partners and Crawford Farms Racing. In turn, that led to the Dan Patch Award as the sport’s top freshman trotting filly. Now, the group had a chance at history on the sport’s biggest day.

“We met Tony at the farm. He came to look at Ramona’s sister,” Al said. “We told him we’d like to go (to the Hambletonian). Brad owns 40 per cent and he had talked to Tony. He had done it before and he knew a filly could do it. He told Tony, ‘If the Crawfords want to go, I want to go.’”

The Crawfords and Grant were members of the partnership — also including trainer Rick Zeron, Holland Racing Stable and Howard Taylor — behind filly Atlanta’s historic 2018 Hambletonian triumph over the boys.

Saturday afternoon, the Crawfords returned to the winner’s circle not just owning a piece of the newly-minted champion — the 15th filly to claim the top prize in trotting — but they also have the distinction of breeding Ramona Hill.

A $70,000 yearling at Lexington, Al and Michelle bought back in for 25 per cent after the gavel fell.

“Maybe we were disappointed that she only brought $70,000,” Michelle said. “We talked to Tony after the sale and he said they didn’t have it all partnered up yet. We said we would love to stay in on a piece of her. So doing that and watching this filly develop and grow over the last two years, nobody ever dreamed that we were going to be in the winner’s circle watching her beat the boys today in the Hambo. It was insane!”

The filly is the first foal out of Lucky Chucky mare Lock Down Lindy, whom the Crawfords campaigned in partnership with In The Gym Partners, Mystical Marker Farms and Joe Sbrocco. Alagna conditioned the filly during her two seasons of competition. Lock Down Lindy hit the board in 13 of 22 starts, taking a sophomore mark of 1:51.4 at the Meadowlands winning her Hambletonian Oaks elimination. Sent off as the slight second choice, the trotter broke stride at the half and finished last. She retired as a broodmare with earnings of $192,929.

“When we had Lock Down Lindy, we knew how fast she was and she was a really, really nice mare. When it came time for her to be a broodmare, we bought her out and we wanted to breed her to something that was going to be dynamic,” said Michelle. “We thought Muscle Hill was the best bet for that and would give her the best shot.”

Hours after Ramona Hill’s victory, and still processing the day’s events — the Crawfords are also part owners of Oaks champion Sorella and Cane Pane champ Tall Dark Stranger — Al talked about how far Crawford Farms has come from its early beginnings in Durhamville, NY. His parents, Jim and Patricia, established Crawford Farms in 1966, and the operation supported the New York program. His father also served as a president of the Harness Horse Breeders of New York State.

“It was always a small, New York Sires Stakes farm. My dad and my mom bred to Precious Fella, Most Happy Fella; we stayed heavily in New York,” Al said. “My dad passed away about 12 years ago at 68. I wish he was here with us today because the farm has come a long way to breed a Hambo winner.”

The fact that the farm still exists is due to a conversation between father and son shortly before Jim’s passing from cancer.

“He said, ‘Your mom and your brother are probably going to want to sell the farm. It’s in tough shape,’” Al said of the exchange. “’Could you do me a favor? Could you keep it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, dad, I can do that.’ He passed away three days later.”

Al Crawford admits the first five years were tough. The 10 mares on the farm were all barren, and the facilities were showing their age. Thus, the work began to revitalize Crawford Farms. In a concerted effort by the couple, the farm has dramatically increased its visibility in the sport. Through sponsorship of major races, investment in top racing and breeding talent, and involvement in endeavors including horse rescue, the focus is on building a brand and backing it with results. The operation now boasts around 350 horses that include mares, babies, yearlings, racehorses and retired racers. The couple has purchased 1,100 acres near Cazenovia Lake that is currently under development as the next stage in the burgeoning farm. With a Hambletonian champion to its credit, Crawford Farms is building a reputation for producing winners.

“We’re trying to bring the farm to a national prominence to where you can say it is on par with some of the top breeders in the business,” Al said.

This fall, Crawford Farms will have 62 yearlings to sell. One filly in the group, La Vie En Blanc, is a half-sister to Ramona Hill, the sport’s newest millionaire. Al Crawford is debating whether to keep the Chapter Seven filly or consign her for auction. Should she catalog, she would attract a great deal of attention after big sis stormed to a 1:50.1 victory, a mark that equaled her sire Muscle Hill’s stakes record. Al has to make the tough decision by Monday.

Whatever the Crawfords decide, Jim Crawford would be proud that his son honored his wishes, and together Al and Michelle have transformed Crawford Farms into the force it is today.