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Even Better Than The First Time

Published: August 9, 2020 10:50 pm ET

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"It broke our hearts that we couldn't be there, but it was a good feeling all the way around to win it."

Despite being 700 kilometres and an international border crossing detached from Saturday's (Aug. 8) blockbuster card at The Meadowlands, owner Brad Grant was every bit as over the moon about winning the $1 million Hambletonian with Ramona Hill as he was two years prior with another filly: Atlanta.

"It was as exciting for me, even more than the first time," Grant told Trot Insider from his Milton, Ont., home. "I can't explain it.

"It broke our hearts that we couldn't be there, but it was a good feeling all the way around to win it. I'm sitting at home with my wife and we're thoroughly enjoying the moment."

Given the uncertainty that clouded the beginning of the 2020 stakes season owing to the continent-wide shutdown of harness racing, the mere fact that the Hambletonian took place as scheduled in early August is reason for joy. And while perpetually changing protocols in place to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus have severely restricted travel across the Canada-United States border, Grant was pleased to see widespread cooperation from the horsepeople and owners who did participate in the Hambletonian Day card.

"It is definitely different seeing people in the winner's circle with masks on, but the nice part was everybody recognizes the seriousness of the pandemic and everybody was tremendously careful and respectful of the protocols that The Meadowlands put together, what they had to follow, what the Hambletonian Society put together — and it didn't look like there was any confusion," Grant said after watching from his home via the Meadowlands broadcast.

"Everybody understood. It's great to see that people are really following the rules to ensure that we can continue to race ... but it was a great day," continued Grant, who not only enjoyed Hambletonian triumph with Ramona Hill, but also victory in the $90,525 Shady Daisy with Reflect With Me and a sweep of the second, third and fourth places in the $273,125 Cane Pace. "For the most part, I sat here at home by myself and just watched the races, and it was just a great day all around."

As far as what's next for Ramona Hill — whether she'll tackle the boys again or race primarily against a strong group of fillies in their own right — that will be as day-to-day as the 2020 harness racing season has been in a lot of ways thus far.

"She's got a lot of her own races; she really doesn't have to race against the boys," continued Grant. "You want to do what's best for the horse. The horses that finished second, third and fourth in there, none of them are slouches. And Sorella came up and had a great race today, so the girls' side of things is tough enough. You almost have to pick where best to go."

Grant did indicate that Ramona Hill's next stop will likely be the Harry M. Zweig Memorial on Aug. 21 at Vernon Downs — another event where her connections can opt to race against male company again or strictly take on fillies. But for major engagements immediately following — such as the Casual Breeze and Canadian Trotting Classic at Woodbine Mohawk Park — Grant and his fellow owners will have to weigh another major variable given current international travel restrictions, as will other owners of Grand Circuit horses competing north of the 49th parallel in the coming weeks.

"I might have to become a bed and breakfast and get (trainer) Tony (Alagna) and (driver) Andrew (McCarthy) and them up here for the races up here, because I don't know how that's going to work out at this point as far as what the rules are going to be," Grant said with a wry chuckle. "We've got some planning ahead of us to see what's going to happen with everybody."

The ultimate decision as to whether American-based trainers and drivers will be granted similar entry to Canada as National Hockey League players have for the ongoing Stanley Cup Playoffs largely rests with government officials from both countries.

That said, Grant is "sure Jim (Lawson) and Jessica (Buckley) and Team Woodbine Mohawk Park are exploring every avenue" to enable Grand Circuit competition to continue in as normal a fashion as possible while possibly employing a 'bubble system' similar to the NHL for the protection of all participants' health.

"In my mind, the drivers are as essential as truck drivers are to the economy. If they're all coming up in a private plane, they go safe to the track, the track does their best at quarantining them, they race and then they go back, I think it should happen. Same as I think it should be the other way, if there was a guy up here, go down and race and come back. These guys are essential to us as owners; it's important to have the people who know the best of the horse ... It's not a slight against the guys who are up here, but I have to be very honest: I want Andrew on Reflect With Me and Ramona Hill, and who would blame me?"

Only time will tell if McCarthy can follow Grant's fillies to Canada. But for now, Grant is happy enough to be racing, let alone to have two major stakes victories on the Hambletonian Day card.

"It's hard to want to suppress your excitement of winning a Hambletonian — a couple of my partners, I think it's their first one — but everybody does and they respect the process, and that's what we have to do to ensure that racing continues everywhere, and hopefully it leads as an example for all racing — whether it be Thoroughbred or Standardbred — that if you follow the process, we'll be able to continue to race."

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