How the perfect plan, the perfect connections and an uber-talented trotting filly led trainer Tony Alagna to his first Hambletonian victory.
by Dave Briggs
Even for a meticulous man who rarely lets emotions get in the way of hard work and a well-thought-out plan, the enormity of the moment was too much to fight off.
Watching from the paddock office as Ramona Hill vanquished the boys — and one other girl — in the 95th Hambletonian Saturday (Aug. 8) at the Meadowlands (replay here), trainer Tony Alagna couldn’t sustain his normally affable-yet-business-like demeanor.
“Luckily, it was just Noel Daley and I in the room. I left the room in tears because it’s something that can’t be taken away from you, as far as in history,” Alagna said Monday as he drove to Kentucky, already on the hunt for the next Ramona Hill just two days removed from, arguably, his greatest career victory.
Never stop working, even when your dreams come true.
“The only other time that I got that emotional over a race was when My MVP won the  Kentucky Futurity because you think about the people that had sat in that chair previously. It’s a very emotional thing to think about.
“When you win the Hambletonian or the Futurity… those races mean something because of the history behind them and the people that won them before you and when you get mentioned someday in that line of great trainers that have won those races, it really does mean something.”
Alagna, 48, grew up in the heartland of Illinois, about three hours north of DuQuoin where the Hambletonian was held until 1980. He never saw the Hambletonian at DuQuoin — he was only 9 when it left the state for New Jersey in 1981— but he remembers travelling to DuQuoin as a young man to watch the World Trotting Derby and to Springfield, IL to watch the races when the legends of the Grand Circuit came to town.
“I can remember when I was 12 or 13 years old going to the Illinois State Fair and Ron Gurfein would ship in with a string and Glen Garnsey and all these people that I only read about,” Alagna said. “I would just marvel when they’d come to town. Now, I can sit on The Deck in Florida and talk to Ron Gurfein. Those are things you don’t think about that you take for granted later on in life, until you give yourself a little reality check to remember that these are the people that you only dreamed about or were nervous to say ‘hi’ to when you were a kid. It means a lot.”
All of this emotion and perspective and history is great, of course, but even Alagna will tell you it doesn’t trump a fantastic plan and a horse with a variety of gifts from the Racing Gods.
A BALLERINA THAT CAN KICK YOUR BUTT
Ask the trainer to describe Ramona Hill and you get an interesting response.
“She looks like a ballerina that can kick your butt. She’s very tall, she’s very lean, she’s very feminine, but she can just go all day with that body. She really can,” Alagna said.
His first impression of her as a yearling was that she was “very immature, but you could tell that she was going to grow up and develop into her body.”
Alagna crafted a plan to give her extra time to develop as a 2-year-old, but that didn’t stop him from appreciating her natural talent early in her lessons.
After just her second start — a dominant wire-to-wire score in 1:54.4 in a $10,000 Kindergarten at the Meadowlands on July 12, 2019 — Alagna told her driver, Andrew McCarthy, that she had the talent to contest the Hambletonian, if everything went right.
A little more than two months later, when she won the $30,000 Kentuckiana Stallion Management Consolation at Harrah’s Hoosier Park on Sept. 20 in 1:54.2, Alagna told fellow trainer Roger Welch that Ramona Hill was not only capable of being in the Hambletonian, but winning it.
In order to increase the likelihood of that happening, Alagna raced her conservatively at 2, opting to skip the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes and end the year with just seven starts — six of those wins, including a convincing Breeders Crown victory at Woodbine Mohawk Park that helped her lock up the Dan Patch Award as the best 2-year-old trotting filly in the United States.
That she is a Muscle Hill and Alagna conditioned her mother, Lock Down Lindy, helped the trainer a lot in terms of both purchasing and then figuring her out.
“She was very immature [as a yearling],” he said. “You could tell that she was going to grow up and develop into her body. She’s just an absolutely beautiful, beautiful filly now. You really can’t fault her, as far as her looks, and I could see what she was going to look like in a year and luckily all the owners felt the same thing as I did, that she was going to fill into the body that she had and she did.”
Bred by Crawford Farms, Ramona Hill was sold for $70,000 out of Preferred Equine’s consignment on opening night of the 2018 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale — hip #42.
Al and Michelle Crawford certainly knew they had something special and were somewhat disappointed she “only” brought $70,000.
Alagna initially bought Ramona Hill with owner Brad Grant in mind. The Ontario-based owned jumped in immediately.
“The good thing about Brad is that he lets me navigate a little bit when other people want to get in… I bought her with him in mind thinking that others would come in. I talked to Al and Michelle and I knew they were willing to come back in, whatever we were wanting them to take, so that worked out great and they came back in. Robert Leblanc, he bought Pilot Discretion the year before so it was something that fit him and John [Fodera] and Steve [Wienick of In The Gym Partners] were original owners of Lock Down Lindy so it only made sense for them to come back in as well. So, it all worked out.”
Having things work out is a major theme of Ramona Hill’s story.
As a 3-year-old, she returned to the races with back trouble Alagna believes was caused by moving from his winter training location in Florida — where the track is more of a sand base — to the limestone of his northern training facility.
“She got a little sore in her feet when she came out of Florida… On the limestone, which kind of rolls out underneath of her a bit more, she got very sore in her back and it really changed her gait there for a while.”
To the rescue came equine chiropractor Dr. Jim Mitchell from Dr. John R. Steele & Associates in New Jersey — the very same Dr. John Steele whose name graces a memorial race on Hambletonian Day for older trotting mares. Talk about things falling into place.
“Dr. Mitchell was working on her twice a week leading up to the Hambo final… He did some manipulation and got her pelvis and everything back in line. He did a heck of a job.
“When he came to check her after the elimination, he said, ‘Her back’s in great shape and we don’t need to do anything.’ When we trained her on Wednesday, just to be sure I had him come back and check her again on Thursday. He said, ‘She’s ready. Everything is great, her back’s in great shape. There’s nothing we need to do, she’s ready to go.’”
The next day, Ramona Hill confirmed she was ready for a special performance on Hambletonian Day.
“The best feeling I had all week was the day before the race, on Friday morning, she was in our second jog set and we go out there to jog her and my second trainer, Edgar Alvarez – he’s been with me and he’s been with this filly since the beginning – he’s out there jogging her and I’m looking ahead and I’m watching her start up and how she bursts against the track and it just started to rain,” Alagna said. “As it was starting to rain, all of a sudden I see her jumping up and down in the air and it took me a minute to try and figure out what she was doing… When it started raining on Friday morning, she was striking her foot at the raindrops. That’s just how good she felt going into the race.
“I didn’t tell anyone else, but to myself I said, ‘They are going to have a heck of a time beating her tomorrow, as good as she feels.’ I mean, I’ve never seen her do that. She was just that full of focus and energy going into the race.”
Given what it took for her to not only make the Hambletonian final in the first place, it seems Ramona Hill was not about to be
Her victory from Post 7 in her Hambletonian elimination on Aug. 1 (replay here) will long rank as one of the great performances in harness racing history.
She rallied from being trapped at the back of an eight-horse field, was forced three wide around the final turn and flew home to best Back Of The Neck by a half-length in 1:51.2. Her last quarter was timed in :25.4.
“I thought Captaintreacherous’ most memorable race was when he won the Hempt out of the nine-hole in the slop and I think I put her elimination race up there with what he did there that day. I think it was just an incredible performance,” Alagna said, adding his phone blew up with messages.
“The texts that I received were from people who have been watching racing for a long time… nobody could believe that she won from where she did,” Alagna said. “I have all the faith in the world in her and I know Andy does as well, and she still blew us away with what she did. People compared it to some of the greatest races they had ever seen and I couldn’t downplay it, because I couldn’t believe what I saw with my own eyes.”
Alagna said he wasn’t overly concerned that effort might take something out of Ramona Hill for the $1 million final a week later.
“A couple of people made the comment that she might bounce off of the effort in her elimination, but I said, ‘If she was going to bounce, she would’ve bounced in the elimination based on how hard she raced in the Del Miller [on July 18, winning in 1:50.3].’ She made two moves and did it the way she did it in her second start back, I thought that would have been her bounce going into the elimination, more so than going into the final.”
Besides, Ramona Hill had Andrew McCarthy in the bike on Hambletonian Day and clearly this was his day.
GO BLUE! GO GREEN!
McCarthy won four of the afternoon’s first six races, including the Shady Daisy with Reflect With Me and the Jim Doherty Memorial with Darlene Hanover, before turning Ramona Hill to the gate.
“He was just in his groove and when you’re in that groove, you can make a lot of good things happen,” Alagna said. “Before the race walking onto the track, I told him ‘Today’s your day, take advantage of it’ and he did. He was having a great day, everything was going the way it should have. Even when he won with Darlene Hanover, I mean, he got parked but he didn’t panic. He just sat there and rode it out. He knew he had a great filly and she did the rest.”
Two men who share a love for blue and green — and horses that can rip a hole in the wind — suddenly found themselves astride the trotting world, both with their first Hambletonian victories.
Afterward, Alagna said he simply told McCarthy, “‘We did it, my man…’ We thought this filly could do it and we made the right decision and got this job done.”
There’s few things better than when a plan comes together, especially when your owners are on side with your plan for their filly to take on the boys.
“Normally, that’s the hard part, but when you’ve got two partners involved in her that had done it with a filly already, that sure makes things a lot easier.”
Just two years prior, Grant and the Crawfords — along with other partners — won the Hambletonian with Atlanta, the first filly in 22 years to win trotting’s most coveted prize.
“You have people that are willing to take that chance nowadays,” Alagna said, “and it just takes one guy to do it to have that seed planted and, once that happens, then the sky is the limit, especially with the trotting gait. It’s such a more natural gait and if you have a naturally-gaited filly that’s strong enough to do it, she can with her male counterparts.”
That she equalled the 1:50.1 stakes record set by her spectacular sire, Muscle Hill, proves Ramona Hill was more than worthy.
In the winner’s circle, COVID-19 masks in place all around, you could tell Alagna and McCarthy were beaming beneath their face coverings.
Nothing, not even a pandemic, could take away what just happened on the track.
“It’s not going to take away from what that filly did, what she accomplished. There’s never going to be an asterisk that’s going to say ‘COVID-19’ in the history books,” Alagna said.
Not for her performance, no, but certainly COVID-19 will forever be part of the narrative for Hambletonian 95, which saw social distancing and face masks everywhere and the Meadowlands limited to just 25 per cent of its capacity.
Alagna even missed out on one of the greatest traditions in harness racing — holding up the Hambletonian trophy.
“I actually didn’t pick the Hambletonian trophy up myself because we were so careful. The Meadowlands did such a great job and the Hambletonian Society, we were so careful with the social distancing and we didn’t want anything to go wrong on such a day that everybody is watching,” Alagna said. “I held the silver platter that we had her drink out of, but I never went over to the table to pick the trophy up. That’s okay, I’ll do that another time.
“The trophies are great, but I was just so proud of my filly and my crew for what they did and for Andy for getting the race done… I was just so proud of everything that happened.
“It’s something I always dreamed of, but it’s not something that you take for granted that it’s going to happen. You dream of it and that’s why you continue to go forward, but when your dream become reality, how can you top that?”
Emotions may have overwhelmed him in the immediate aftermath of victory, but by the time Alagna reached the winner’s circle, his principle thought was how magnificent it feels when the pieces all fall neatly in place and a plan comes together.
Later, when the man with a plan finally had his first quiet moment to process the Hambletonian victory, he said it was that — not history or the wildest dreams of a little boy from Illinois coming true or the fact that they can never take his filly’s name off the sport’s greatest trophy — that was still his prevailing thought.
“Just the fact that we did it, the plan that we put in place all came together and worked out,” Alagna said acknowledging how incredibly difficult it is for plans to come together in horse racing. “Honestly, it was just relief that it worked out.”