By Ken Weingartner — The moments following Ramona Hill’s win in the Hambletonian Stakes were unlike any Andy McCarthy ever experienced as a driver.
“The feeling I got when I crossed the wire, I’ve never had that before, that amount of joy and emotion,” McCarthy said. “I don’t want to compare it to my kids being born, because that’s a completely different thing, but it was definitely emotional.
“Heading back to the winner’s circle, I’ve never felt anything like it in my life on the racetrack. Embracing the moment, just the feeling of joy, it’s unbelievable.”
McCarthy and Ramona Hill captured the 95th edition of the Hambletonian this past Saturday at The Meadowlands. The duo won the $1 million event by one length over Ready For Moni in a stakes-record-equaling 1:50.1 for trainer Tony Alagna and owners Brad Grant, Crawford Farms Racing, Robert LeBlanc, and In The Gym Partners.
Ramona Hill, a daughter of Muscle Hill out of Lock Down Lindy bred by Crawford Farms, became the 15th filly to win harness racing’s top race for 3-year-old trotters.
The Hambletonian was McCarthy’s fifth win of the day on the stakes-filled Big M card. He 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, and the fast start was beneficial.
“It’s good to get some good vibes going for the day,” McCarthy said.
“Confidence has such a main role in how you drive, I think. When the ball’s rolling and things are going good, you feel like you can do nothing wrong. For me, anyway, confidence is definitely a major player in how I do.”
McCarthy’s biggest challenge was finding a way to enjoy the wins without getting too pumped up along the way.
“You want to celebrate, and you want to feel that emotion, but you also don’t want to carry that over to the next drive,” he said.
“You want to stay focused and you’ve still got work to do. I like to be confident but calm at the same time. I don’t want to be carrying too much emotion with me, just really stay focused on the job at hand.
“There are a million things that can go wrong in a race and you have to be super focused and aware of these things.”
A native of Australia, the 34-year-old McCarthy has raced regularly in North America since 2007. He has seen his purse earnings increase annually since the start of 2013, reaching a career-best $7.67 million last year, when he ranked ninth among drivers in North America.
In 2019, McCarthy became the eighth driver in history to win at least four Breeders Crown finals in a year. He became the first to accomplish the feat without driving a favorite.
Last year, he also made his first appearance in a Hambletonian final, finishing seventh with Pilot Discretion. This year with Ramona Hill, he was fourth after a quarter mile, moved to the front on the backstretch, and cruised to victory. Her time equaled the stakes mark set by her sire Muscle Hill in 2009.
“In my mind, I had the best horse in the race,” McCarthy said. “I just wanted to be safe through the first turn. Once I got through the first turn, I thought I could win the race however it went down.”
McCarthy followed the Hambletonian while growing up in Australia but became more focused on the race after arriving in the U.S. to compete. He is the 28th different driver to win the Hambletonian in the 40 years it has called The Meadowlands home.
“When I was a teenager, I started following the American racing more,” McCarthy said. “Back then, it was kind of pre-social media days, so it was kind of hard to keep up with it. I always liked American racing and I loved the Hambo. As far as thinking I could win it one day, that was a different story.
“Once I got over here and went to the Hambo every year and watched it, it’s become the race. It’s the race you want to win, for sure. I’m just very lucky and privileged to be able to do that.”
Ken Weingartner, for U.S. Trotting Association, is an HRI Harness contributor