Derby Diaries: Patrick O’Neill Describes ‘Unbelievable’ Ride to Derby With Hot Rod Charlie

The Life
Celebration after Hot Rod Charlie’s victory in the Louisiana Derby March 20 at Fair Grounds. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Patrick O’Neill, nephew to two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill and top bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill, had a different interest from most college kids when he was an undergraduate student and a member of Brown University’s football team. He insisted on adding TVG to the fraternity house’s cable television package; he was the one who watched horse racing at every opportunity, including in class, and in film study prior to practice.

weekend TV schedule

Thursday, April 29: 12:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. ET on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Friday, April 30:
12 p.m.-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN; 12 p.m.-5:30 p.m. ET and 8:30 p.m.-9 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Saturday, May 1:
12 p.m.-3 p.m. and 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; 2:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. ET on NBC; post time varies on TVG

Sunday, May 2:
1 p.m.-3 p.m. and 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on TVG

O’Neill’s infectious enthusiasm about the sport and “family business” eventually resulted in an interest being taken by his close friends who graduated with him in 2015. With their professional careers underway, they were looking for an activity that would keep them connected and add to the great times they had already enjoyed together.

O’Neill, now vice president for sales and strategic partnerships at Founder Sport Group in San Diego, joined former Brown teammates Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins and Alex Quoyeser in forming Boat Racing, LLC. The partnership is named for a beer-chugging game they played as Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers.

Boat Racing took a minor but still significant financial stake in Hot Rod Charlie, the third horse they ever owned, joining Greg Helm and William Strauss. They suddenly all find themselves at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after “Chuck,” as they like to call him, scored a front-running two-length victory in the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 20 at Fair Grounds.

O’Neill has written a diary with Tom Pedulla for America’s Best Racing since Hot Rod Charlie burst onto the scene by running second in the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at 94-1 odds.

Here is his Derby installment:

When I think back as to how far Chuck has taken us, it is ‘unbelievable.’ A word the Boat Racing guys seem to be using quite often as of late.

When we attended the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, we had no expectations at all. Chuck did not look like much at that stage of his development. I would compare him to a pre-adolescent, still trying to figure out everything mentally and still growing into his lanky frame. He had not done much on the racetrack, either, as reflected in his 94-1 odds. We were just happy to be together and happy to have a horse in the Breeders’ Cup. When Chuck ran second to 2-year-old champion Essential Quality, we were pretty much as surprised as everyone else.

We also realized that he still had a lot to prove. There are so many one-hit wonders in sports, especially horse racing, and we hoped he would not be one of them. We could not wait to see how he would progress physically as a 3-year-old and how that would translate to his running form.

My uncle Doug, alongside his great group of horseman within Team O’Neill, mapped out a plan after the Breeders’ Cup that has gone perfectly up to this point, knock-on-wood. They deserve a ton of credit for developing Chuck into the horse he is today. We stayed in our backyard for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at the end of January. Chuck wound up third in a blanket finish with Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian, who are great horses with great connections, but I seriously do not think Chuck thinks he lost. That is the day, in my opinion, we really found out about Chuck’s tenacity and, more importantly, his heart. He had no business after a three-month layoff going two turns and being jostled around between horses to stay on and compete to the wire. Without a doubt, most horses suck back out of there and drop anchor when put in that position. I think internally we knew after that race that Chuck was not a one-hit-wonder and he could be something special. He had proven to belong on the Road to the Derby.

Left to right from bottom: Dan, Patrick, Reiley, Alex, Eric (Patrick O’Neill photo)

The next step called for the Louisiana Derby. My uncle was confident our horse would ship well and that he would welcome the distance, which is a mile and three-sixteenths. Then, there was the large amount of time it allowed to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, if we earned enough points to qualify.

By the time we got to Louisiana, the aesthetics and aura surrounding Chuck had completely changed. Chuck was no longer a pre-adolescent. One look at him and you could tell that he had made it through puberty, and he had become a rambunctious high school upperclassmen that recently started hitting the gym. He was giving us a quiet confidence, especially after Joel Rosario, one of the best jockeys in the world, decided to travel to Louisiana for the mount. When Chuck entered the starting gate for the Louisiana Derby, I would say it was pretty obvious that our expectations had certainly been heightened since the Breeders’ Cup, but we still were unsure if Chuck was Kentucky Derby worthy. When he drew the five hole, we discussed amongst ourselves, including co-owner’s Bill Strauss and Roadrunner Racing, and agreed that we had no excuses.

Then … the gates opened ...

Chuck shot to the lead and, as much respect as I have for Joel, I am thinking ‘What the heck is he doing? That’s not the plan.’

Of course, Joel knew exactly what he was doing. He could tell he had plenty of horse under him and he had accurately sized up the rest of the field. He knew we would be able to set a comfortable pace and still finish strong. We were quite worried on the far turn when Midnight Bourbon came to Chuck’s flank and looked like he was going to go right on by, but Joel knew he had more horse and Chuck dug in and refused to let anyone past.

And then the entire Chuck entourage mentally went blank. As Chuck approached the finish line, one of the most surreal moments happened, in that we all went into what I would describe as an emotional blackout, which I am pretty positive had nothing to do with visiting Bourbon Street the night before.

Celebration after Louisiana Derby. (Patrick O’Neill photo)

We celebrated as if we were Lionel Messi after hitting a goal in the top corner – sprinting down the grandstand, hands above our heads, and screaming. We all remember the race vividly, as well as the winner’s circle spectacle, but the immediate celebration after the race was only confirmed via footage later seen on social media from fans who attended Fair Grounds that day. What a surreal experience to have your expectations confirmed that Chuck is an elite talent, but more importantly, just an incredible competitor who loves to win. Assuming he came out of the race healthy, it was crazy to think that we were on our way to the Kentucky Derby!

You might think another big night on Bourbon Street followed, but it had been a long, emotionally exhausting trip. Bill joined our 15-deep entourage for dinner at one of New Orleans’ many great restaurants. Then we returned to a house we had rented to watch the live telecast posted online and enjoy each other’s company before calling it a day – quite an understatement to just call this simply a “day” in our young lives.

As the Derby nears, the experience is taking us back to the time we treasured at Brown, when we were consumed by preparations for our game against our arch-rivals across the Ivy League. You do everything you can to be ready, then you start to lock in and focus on what is ahead. The tough part about playing football versus being a horse race owner is at least we had some impact on the outcome when we were the athlete. Now, we have no impact and simply must trust in the team around us, between Team O’Neill and Chuck. Thank God we have the best in the business.

Chuck has given us many blessings on this wild ride. One of the greatest aspects of this journey has been the opportunity to bring so many amazing people together that each of the owners of Chuck would deem essential to who they are today. Then, combining these different parties and having great humans meet new great humans, who end up becoming lifelong friends as well.

Boat Racing team at 2020 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. (Courtesy of Patrick O’Neill)

Our five-person Boat Racing group from the Breeders’ Cup grew to 15 in Louisiana and will now include 165 at Churchill Downs. This is before the 40 people from Bill and Roadrunner’s groups being added on top. Simply, the Chuck crew will bring 200-plus individuals from all over the globe to Churchill Downs on May 1, where win, lose, or draw, we are going to make the most of this experience, enjoy each other’s company, and love on Chuck as if he is one of our brothers.

My uncle Doug believes that training Thoroughbreds is an art, not a science. It is his way of saying that every horse must be treated as an individual. When Nyquist won the Derby for him in 2016, he was prepared differently from I’ll Have Another, his first winner in 2012.

Chuck has improved every day since he entered the barn, a huge credit to Team O’Neill. He has developed into a horse that is extremely adaptable to the conditions of the race. He won the Louisiana Derby on the lead, but he certainly does not have to go to the front. I’ve learned my lesson that when you have a [likely] Hall of Fame jockey on your horse’s back like Flavien Prat, you put all the trust in the world into their hands, and they will make that decision once the gate opens.

Chuck could not be training any better. We’re quietly optimistic about our chances and, as much as we respect all the other connections and horses in the race, we would not trade places with anyone. However, it is the Kentucky friggin Derby, where you’ll have 20 thousand-pound animals going 1 ¼ miles for the first time in front of more fans and media than any of them have ever seen. Anything can happen. But the fact that we are even discussing the O’Neills and Boat Racing being a participant on the biggest stage in all of horse racing – unbelievable. Thank you, Chuck.

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