Patrick O’Neill, nephew to two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill and bloodstock agent Dennis O'Neill, had a different interest from most college kids when he was an undergraduate student and a member of the football team at Brown University. 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.
O’Neill's infectious enthusiasm about the sport and “family business” eventually resulted in an interest being taken by his close friends that graduated with him in 2015. With their professional careers underway, they were looking for an activity that would help 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 interest in Hot Rod Charlie, joining Greg Helm and William Strauss. They suddenly all find themselves on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after Hot Rod Charlie, the third horse Boat Racing ever owned, ran second in the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at 94-1 odds.
O’Neill reflects on that accomplishment and looks to Hot Rod Charlie’s 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis on Saturday at Santa Anita Park in a diary written with Tom Pedulla for America’s Best Racing.
No one knows what the future may hold for Hot Rod Charlie, or “Chuck.” But if he does nothing else in his career, he provided us with the thrill of a lifetime in the Juvenile.
We knew going into that race that he was just starting to figure out how this whole racing thing works. He was very immature mentally when Dennis picked him out of the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale in 2019 and this only continued when Doug and his great team of horsemen, self-proclaimed Team O’Neill, began training him in early 2020. But Team O’Neill welcomes the challenge that every young horse brings and, although Chuck did not break his maiden until his fourth start, you could see the lights start to turn on with each race.
Finally, in his fourth start and with the addition of blinkers, our boy found the focus he had been lacking. In addition to the blinkers, with a move from turf to dirt and stretching him out around two turns, Chuck looked like a whole new horse when he broke his maiden at one mile last Oct. 2 at Santa Anita.
The victory was enough for him to make the also-eligible list for the Juvenile at Keeneland and, despite not being guaranteed a spot in the race yet, the boys packed their bags for beautiful Lexington! When everything fell right for him to get into the race, we really thought he had what it takes to build off that first win and give an effort that would make us all proud. We were thinking he’d come running late and grab fourth or fifth. However, we’d be lying if we said our expectations didn’t change a tad when we saw 94-1 at post time.
My closeness to Eric, Dan, Reiley, and Alex, the brotherhood we share, comes from the countless sacrifices and hours we put in together both on the field and in the classroom, which mind you was during very formative ages in any person’s life. When we were playing football for Brown, we brought incredible heart and toughness to every game. We wanted to make each other and the only fans in the crowd, our parents, proud. That is the great thing about Ivy League athletics — it is high level football with legitimate D1 athletes, many of which could have gone to Power 5 schools, but you ultimately simply play for the people around you and the love of the game. We were part of some good teams at Brown and we will always treasure those times.
Racing is our way to keep those competitive juices flowing, and we could not have been more stoked before the Juvenile. After breaking from the gate, Tyler Gaffalione did an amazing job of allowing Chuck to find a comfortable stride in mid-pack and save ground around the first turn, which is not an easy feat from the 12 hole at Keeneland going 1 1/16 miles.
Hot Rod began to move as they approached the far turn. We could see Tyler niggle on him and he instantly received a response. It felt like being on the sideline in a game and watching Reiley, the one receiver of our group, streak open on a trick play you know is coming, but never seems to work in practice. When Hot Rod made the lead at the eighth pole, we lost all control. We were going nuts, but the best part thinking back was seeing our “middle-aged” ownership partner, Bill Strauss, jump up and down like he was at the Super Bowl.
When Essential Quality made a late move to overtake us, I’ve never rooted harder for a second-place finish in my 28 years of watching horse racing. Gladly, Hot Rod had plenty left to finish second to Essential Quality by three-quarters of a length and we celebrated and hugged as if we had won. I think Doug, in one of the post-race interviews, might have said it felt like we beat Harvard! We celebrated long into the Lexington night and continued to celebrate after we left Keeneland. We all agreed that Hot Rod had given us exactly what we were hoping for when we started this endeavor — a memory that would last a lifetime.
Now that our horse is listed among the Derby prospects, we are all doing everything we can to keep our feet to ground and keep at the forefront of our mind that we are such a long way from making it to the Kentucky Derby. So much can happen between now and the first Saturday in May. I remember Notional, owned by one of the best men in the game, Mr. J. Paul Reddam, who won a big Kentucky Derby prep race for Doug and then was injured shortly thereafter.
These are young horses that are constantly changing and, based off of recent years, it is not out of the question that the eventual Derby winner has not even run his first race yet.
Doug decided to ship Hot Rod to his Santa Anita barn after the Juvenile in order to keep a close eye on him and keep him in a racetrack setting. The entire team got on a call in early December and put together a plan that included a brief refreshening for 45-60 days and then a 5-6 week workout program with the end goal being the Bob Lewis for his first start of the new season.
Kudos to the entire team, from the groom to Doug, for seeing that the plan went off without any bumps in the road. Chuck seems to be doing extremely well and, by all reports, is primed and ready for game day on Saturday.
Hot Rod will face a tough field but is fortunate to have perennial leading rider, Joel Rosario, piloting the ship. We would have been ecstatic to have Tyler back riding him as well, but the Covid situation and travel makes it tough for any non-local jockeys to travel all the way out West.
We would be on Cloud Nine if we won, but the important thing is that Chuck gives a great effort and comes back healthy. He will always be such a special animal to all of us regardless of where he places.
We keep telling each other how blessed we are to find ourselves in this situation. Some people are in the game for their entire lives without having anything remotely close to a Derby horse.
Who knows where this journey might lead? But we will make sure to enjoy the ride.