Hightstown, NJ — Sister Sledge might not have attracted overwhelming attention heading into this year’s Hambletonian, but as one of two fillies in Saturday’s (Aug. 1) eliminations at The Meadowlands, she should find plenty of eyes on her now.
The Ron Burke-trained Sister Sledge has won three of four races this season and 11 of 16 lifetime. She has hit the board in every start, finishing worse than second only once, on her way to $622,058 in purses.
Sister Sledge finished second to Ramona Hill in Dan Patch Award voting for best 2-year-old female trotter of 2019. Ramona Hill also was entered in the Hambletonian, which is the sport’s premier race for 3-year-old trotters.
This is the first time multiple fillies will take on the boys in the Hambletonian since Act Of Grace and Continentalvictory in 1996, and only the second time since 1983. Continentalvictory won the 1996 Hambletonian and was the last filly winner until Atlanta in 2018.
Sister Sledge is the 3-1 second choice on the morning line in the second of Saturday’s two $50,000 Hambletonian eliminations. She will start from post two in a nine-horse field. Ready For Moni, trained by Nancy Takter, is the 5-2 favorite after winning his only start of the season, a division of the Stanley Dancer Memorial on July 18, in 1:51.4.
The top-five finishers from each elimination advance to the $1 million Hambletonian final Aug. 8 at The Meadowlands.
“We’re in a very good spot,” Burke said. “(Post two) gives her options. It’s going to be tough, but I at least like where we’re starting.”
Burke decided Tuesday morning to put Sister Sledge up against the boys in the Hambletonian, rather than entering the fillies-only Hambletonian Oaks, but it was something he had been considering all year.
“I don’t think the Hambo is any tougher than the Oaks,” Burke said. “I think if you graded the races out, they would be equal. If anything, I thought the fillies were a tad tougher. So even if you say they’re even, one race goes for $1 million and the other goes for ($600,000). It doesn’t take a lot of brain work to realize that if I can race for a million in basically the same class, I’m going to go for the million.
“I think there are a lot of very nice horses (in the Hambletonian) but I don’t think anyone is tons better than the others. So, I’ll take my shot. It wasn’t like you were going to go to the Oaks and just go a training mile around there. They’re going to go too. Hopefully, we get past the elimination. I like the decision I made. Even if it doesn’t work out, in my mind, I put time into it and thought it out and I had reasons for what I did.”
Another factor was the return to Hambletonian eliminations being contested the week prior to the final, rather than the single-day format for elims and final in recent years.
“If there had been two heats, it would have been a different decision,” Burke said.
In the build up to this year’s Hambletonian, several fillies were mentioned as possible contenders to challenge the boys, with Ramona Hill, Sorella, Hypnotic AM, and Panem among that group. Sister Sledge was not.
“I don’t know where she fell out of favor,” Burke said. “To me, she was the best filly last year; you could rate her or Ramona Hill. This year, everyone is talking about different horses. We beat all them last year and all we’ve done basically this year is win. If you look at her lines, she’s consistently good. Even when she’s been beat, there have been excuses. I think she’s classy. I think she deserves the shot.”
Sister Sledge, a daughter of Father Patrick out of Behindclosedoors, won her first two races this season at The Meadows, both Grand Circuit stakes, by a total of 10 lengths. She finished second by a quarter-length in a division of the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes at Harrah’s Philadelphia before winning a division of the Tompkins-Geers Stakes by 4-3/4 lengths in 1:51.2 at The Meadowlands last weekend.
“We’ve gone where her races are,” said Burke, who trains the filly for Burke Racing, Jason Melillo, J&T Silva-Purnel & Libby, and Weaver Bruscemi. “She’s a Pennsylvania-bred, I’m not going to race her at The Meadowlands every start. I’ve got to make money with her. The money was in Pa., knowing I would come (to The Meadowlands) the week before the Hambo.
“She’s been great. Maybe she didn’t get around Philly great, but she was great at The Meadows and, to me, she has every right to improve off that (last start). She’s only been (at The Meadowlands) one week and she needed to stretch. I think you’ll see her be better.”
Among the 17 Hambletonian entrants, Sister Sledge’s 1:51.2 mile is tied for second fastest this year. Ramona Hill holds the fastest win time in the group, 1:50.3.
Ramona Hill is 5-1 in the first Hambletonian elimination, starting from post seven in the eight-horse field with Andy McCarthy driving for trainer Tony Alagna. Back Of The Neck, trained by Ake Svanstedt, is the 2-1 favorite. Amigo Volo, last season’s male 2-year-old Breeders Crown champion, is 7-2 and Beads is 9-2.
Last year, Ramona Hill won six of seven races, capped by her victory from post 10 in the Breeders Crown for 2-year-old filly trotters at Woodbine Mohawk Park. She has raced twice this year, finishing third in her debut before winning the Del Miller Memorial with her 1:50.3 score from post 10 on July 18 at The Meadowlands.
“I have a lot of confidence in Ramona Hill; she’ll get me where I need to go,” McCarthy said. “When you have a horse that you know whatever happens, I know I’m going to leave fast enough to either make the front or get close and we can figure it out after that, it does make you feel better no matter what the draw is.
“Pulling up after that mile (in the Del Miller), and it doesn’t happen very often, but I actually got goosebumps. Hats off to the horse. I’ve just got so much respect for her. She’s just a game, tough horse, and will do whatever you ask her to do. And she enjoys it.”
Ramona Hill, a daughter of Muscle Hill out of Lock Down Lindy, is owned by Brad Grant, Crawford Farms Racing, Robert LeBlanc, and In The Gym Partners.
Racing begins at 7:15 p.m. (EDT) Saturday at The Meadowlands. The Hambletonian eliminations are races six and eight on the 13-race card. Eliminations for the Aug. 8 Hambletonian Oaks were unnecessary, but eight Oaks finalists will be in action in an open for 3-year-old filly trotters. Also in action will be Meadowlands Pace champ Tall Dark Stranger in the Tompkins-Geers Stakes for 3-year-old male pacers.
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