Trenton, NJ — Michelle Crawford paid a recent visit to trainer Ron Burke’s stable at Gaitway Farm in central New Jersey and strolled past horses the likes of Hannelore Hanover, the 2017 Horse of the Year, her own Homicide Hunter, the fastest trotter in history, and multiple Dan Patch Award winners.
“It was like a Who’s Who,” she said. “It was just a fun day.”
What made it more fun is that Crawford was visiting one of those Dan Patch Award winners, as her Hambletonian champion Atlanta was stabled right next to Hannelore Hanover.
“I guess they’re best buds now,” she said with a laugh. “So, life is good.”
Crawford and her husband Al, owners of Crawford Farms in New York, bought into Atlanta just after Memorial Day last year. A few months later, they were the proud co-owners of the first female Hambletonian champion since 1996 and the eventual Trotter of the Year.
In a season that featured a slew of talented 3-year-old filly trotters, Atlanta hit the board in all 14 starts, winning eight and earning $1.01 million.
Is it any wonder, as Atlanta prepares for her 2019 debut Monday in the $100,000 Miami Valley Distaff for older female trotters at Miami Valley Raceway, Crawford exclaimed, “Oh I’m so excited.”
“I know that Ronnie had said depending on how she qualified we were going to figure out if she was going to go to Miami Valley or not,” she continued. “If she qualified in (1):52, (1):53, we’d send her. If it was a little bit light we would wait. But I don’t think you can argue with her qualifier (1:52.3 at The Meadowlands) given the winds and the weather that day.”
Racing begins at 2:05 p.m. (EDT) Monday at Miami Valley. The card also includes the $100,000 Sam “Chip” Noble III Memorial for older female pacers, which features Dan Patch Award-winner Shartin N. Complete entries can be found here.
Atlanta was turned out during the off-season at Chris Coyle’s farm in North Carolina before spending the past few months getting in shape for her upcoming campaign. Crawford will be unable to watch the Distaff in person but is optimistic heading into the race.
“Oh my gosh, she looks so good, so happy,” she said. “I wish I could be in Miami Monday. I think she looks good for it. It’s a competitive field there but she should shine.”
Competition will be tough throughout the season. Atlanta will not only be battling older horses but will also be pushed by numerous mares her own age, as last year featured one of the best crops of 3-year-old female trotters in years.
“It was a good group,” Crawford said. “You’ve got Phaetosive in there, you’ve got Manchego coming back. You’ve got a lot of the horses that have really been very good. She did lose to Manchego, but with this group you’re not talking about losing necessarily. Those are other extremely good horses. They’re the top ones in the country.”
As for going against the older horses, Michelle takes a wait-and-see attitude.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I think she’s looking very good, to be honest. I think she can beat the boys if she puts her head to it and she stays in good racing condition and everything stays status quo. I think she’s got a good shot (at success).”
Regardless of what happens, Atlanta has already given the Crawfords special thrills. Michelle said she has anxiety when any horse gets up to the gate, so naturally when Atlanta won the Hambletonian “I couldn’t even breathe that day.”
The Crawfords had bought into Atlanta, then trained and co-owned by Rick Zeron, following her win in last May’s Empire Breeders Classic final for 3-year-old filly trotters.
“Rick was a gentleman, he was very happy to let us into his piece,” Crawford said. “He gave us an opportunity to have this amazing creature. But at the same time, I watched her go to post (in the Hambletonian) and after the first heat, everybody’s got their hearts in their throat. My stress level was probably a little more than just owning her from the get-go and just hoping for a great outcome. It was like ‘Oh my God, please let this investment work out. Don’t fail me now.’”
Michelle jokingly passed off the investment as Al’s Father’s Day gift. But it was because of Al’s knowledge they decided to take the plunge.
“I can look at something objectively myself,” Michelle said. “But when I know he looks at something, he’s been doing this for 40-something years. When he thinks something is an exceptional freak, I pay attention. I started watching her and I thought, my God I would love her in the broodmare band.”
That hopeful love turned to joy when Atlanta won harness racing’s biggest event. Crawford’s anxiety was replaced by joy, happiness and some moisture in the eyes.
“Maybe a few tears,” she said. “I get a little bit weepy and teary when I’m overwhelmed. I feel like I’m half-horse half the time. I love these things so much and I care about them from start to finish. I always want to put horse health first. But when they excel and do something so great, it’s just hard to put into words how I feel. It’s just very emotional.”
Atlanta, a daughter of Chapter Seven out of Hemi Blue Chip, is now owned by Crawford Farms Racing, Brad Grant, and Howard Taylor. The mare sold earlier this year in an online auction for a record $1.55 million to dissolve the previous ownership group.
Looking ahead at this season, Michelle threw out a playful prediction.
“I think,” she said, “Homicide Hunter’s record (of 1:48.4) is in jeopardy as the world’s fastest trotter with Atlanta out there this year.”
Such is life in the Who’s Who lane.