The Hambletonian is usually the week the sports world takes more than a passing glance at harness racing with the running of trotting's most prestigious race.
The storyline at the Meadowlands on Saturday will be the filly Ramona Hill. She is the favorite against nine other 3-year-olds in $1 million Hambletonian final.
This year, however, harness racing is feeling the lethal blows of the coronavirus. Six people were lost in the pandemic's opening salvo in New Jersey,
Trainer John Brennan, 69, was the first reported death in state, where the death toll exceeded the 14,000 on Friday with 12 new fatalities reported.
Brennan had a tie to the Hambletonian. He owned a piece of Sugar Trader, the 2003 Hambo runner-up.
The Fusco family, a multigenerational harness family based in Freehold, was hit even harder. Within weeks, Grace Fusco, a 73-year-old whose recently deceased husband had been in the business, died along with three of her children, Rita, Carmine and Vincent, and Grace's sister, Marie, who lived in New York.
“We have not recovered, it's a day-by-day struggle with our family losing so much,” Toni Fusco, one of 11 Fusco children, told The Associated Press by phone Friday. "None of us recovered.
“We are grateful that myself, my brother, Joe, and my sister, Maria, came home from the hospital,” Toni said. “Eight of us were hospitalized and only three of us came home. We're grateful for that but it's a struggle every day.”
Toni Fusco, 54, said her mother always looked for the good in things, and it's the approach she is taking toward harness racing's biggest day.
“I am happy that the Hambletonian is on and that racing people are trying to get back to their lives,” said Toni, who has two sons in the business.
Robert is a trainer and Vincent is a driver. Her brother, Paul, also is a trainer.
“But like I said, it's day by day,” she said. "I'm glad the Hambletonian is back and I wish all the drivers and trainers the best."
Ramona Hill comes into the Hambletonian final for her fourth start of the year. The daughter of Muscle Hill won her last two, but her last-to-first win with in the Hambletonian elimination last weekend was spectacular. The filly, driven by Andrew McCarthy, blew by the field to win by a half length in 1:51.2. She was last most of the race.
The daughter of Muscle Hill. She is owned by Brad Grant, Crawford Farms Racing, Robert LeBlanc, and In The Gym Partners. She has won eight of 10 career races and $556,865.
Ready For Moni, who won the other eliminations in 1:51.3, has been made the second choice in the mile race. Yannick Gingras is listed to drive the 3-1 shot.
The rest of the field in post position order with horse, driver and odds:
Back Of The Neck, Scott Zeron, 4-1; Hollywood Story, David Miller, 15-1; Big Oil, Andy Miller, 15-1; Ramona Hill; Threefiftytwo, Daniel Dube, 6-1; Capricornus, Tim Tetrick, 15-1; Rome Pays Off, Mattias Melander, 15-1; Sister Sledge, Brian Sears, 12-1; Amigo Volo, Dexter Dunn, 12-1.
The Hambletonian and the $600,000 Hambletonian Oaks will be presented on a tape delayed one-hour broadcast on CBS beginning at 6 p.m.
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