Derby Diaries: Patrick O’Neill on Hot Rod Charlie’s Louisiana Derby Chances

The Life
Hot Rod Charlie, shown training for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, makes his second start of his 3-year-old season in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, a key Kentucky Derby prep race. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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 watched horse racing at every opportunity, including in class, and in film study before practice.

weekend TV schedule

Friday, March 19: post time varies on TVG

Saturday, March 20: 6 p.m.-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN; post time varies on TVG

Sunday, March 21: 2 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET on FS2; 2:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. ET on FS1;post time varies on TVG

O’Neill's infectious enthusiasm about the sport and "family business" eventually resulted in an interest being taken by close friends who 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 with Hot Rod Charlie, the third horse Boat Racing ever owned.

Hot Rod Charlie, runner-up in the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, enters the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby on Saturday with 10 qualifying points to currently rank 20th on the Churchill Downs leaderboard.

The Louisiana Derby offers points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the first four finishers. O’Neill reflects on Boat Racing’s improbable ride and the golden opportunity at hand in a diary written with Tom Pedulla for America’s Best Racing.

We were not quite sure what to expect when Hot Rod Charlie – “Chuck,” as we like to call him – made his 3-year-old debut in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30 at Santa Anita Park.

He was coming off an extended layoff since he shocked many fans by running second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and there was some question about whether he could back up that performance and prove he really belonged among the best of his class.

The Boat Racing gang, Patrick O’Neill second from right. (Courtesy of Patrick O'Neill)

What he showed us was something you cannot possibly teach a horse – an incredible will to win. While Chuck did not win the Bob Lewis and you never want to lose by a head bob, he was all heart in taking third as part of a blanket finish. The winner, Medina Spirit, displayed his quality when he placed second to his stablemate and current Kentucky Derby favorite Life Is Good in his next start, the San Felipe Stakes.

It did not take us long after the Bob Lewis to settle on the Louisiana Derby. Chuck had been in a very hard race off a long layoff and over a slow, tiring track. While he came out of it extremely well, we thought the extra time would suit him well and continue to give him the opportunity to grow into himself.

At a mile and three-sixteenths, the Louisiana Derby is the longest of the prep races, and we think that is in his favor. Oxbow, his sire, won the Preakness in 2013 at that distance. It was easy to miss but worth noting that he seemed to have re-broke after Essential Quality passed him in the late stages of the Juvenile. We think the added distance will hit him right between the eyes.

The most important aspect in deciding on the Louisiana Derby is the timing. Chuck has really found himself since the Juvenile, and we think giving him seven weeks after the Bob Lewis helped that process. The guy is the definition of a workout warrior – just loves to train! Equally important, he would have six weeks before the Kentucky Derby, if we were so fortunate. We have all the confidence in the world that there is no better team in getting a horse ready to peak after an extended layoff than Doug and Team O’Neill – I always think back to Stevie Wonderboy running a career-best race in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with 6 weeks off and then Nyquist winning the 2016 Kentucky Derby after being off for five weeks. In Team O’Neill we trust!

We are all incredibly excited at this stage about where we stand, but we continuously keep reminding one another how fortunate we are and how every day of this ride is not guaranteed. There are tons of individuals who spend their lives trying to get the opportunity we currently have, so we certainly are doing our best to stay even keeled …  although our moms – who are friends in their own right and call themselves the Mama Bears as the Brown mascot is a Brown Bear – are making it extremely tough on us when they continuously ask us about Louisville hotels and ensuring we have Derby tickets for them on the first Saturday in May.

Luckily, Chuck has channeled his inner LeBron James and has turned off social media for his playoff push, and seems to be zoned in for Saturday. Chuck has worked five times since the Bob Lewis and seems to get more professional about the way he does his business every week. His last work was breathtaking and he seems to be an extremely happy dude right now.

He shipped to Fair Grounds on Monday and we’ll meet him in the Big Easy Thursday night. New Orleans is such a great city with such a terrific atmosphere and wonderful people. We can’t wait!

On Saturday, we have strategically scheduled an airboat swamp tour for early Saturday morning to – using a horse term – “keep us under wraps” ahead of the big day. We will then go from playing with alligators to cheering on Chuck later that afternoon.

At the end of it all, no matter what happens on Saturday, Chuck is a once-in-a-lifetime animal and he owes us nothing …  we love the guy! However, based on the signs he is giving us, we are extremely optimistic Chuck will run a huge race and Mayor Contrell will let him join us on Bourbon Street Saturday night!

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