Haskell Stakes Diary: Patrick O'Neill on Hot Rod Charlie's Belmont Performance, Haskell Chances

The Life
Hot Rod Charlie works out at Monmouth Park in preparation for the TVG.com Haskell. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

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 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, July 15: 12:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. ET on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Friday, July 16:
1 p.m.-6:30 p.m. ET on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Saturday, July 17:
1 p.m.-2 p.m. on FS1; 2 p.m.-5:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m. and 8 p.m.-10 p.m. on FS2; 5 p.m.-6 p.m. on NBC; 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FOX; post time varies on TVG

Sunday, July 18:
1 p.m.-1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m. 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 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 of 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, Roadrunning Racing (managed by Greg Helm) and William Strauss. Hot Rod Charlie won the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby and cemented his status as one of the nation’s top 3-year-olds with a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and a solid second after he laid down torrid fractions in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.

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. Here is his installment ahead of the $1 million Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes on Saturday at Monmouth Park:

I was disappointed.

For the first time in Charlie’s amazing career for us, I found myself disappointed after the Belmont Stakes. I was not disappointed for us. Our horse had given us absolutely everything he had. I was disappointed for Charlie. He had run so hard and so well, including in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby, that he deserved that Grade 1 win against the best of his generation.

Flavien Prat’s pre-race instructions were to read the break. If he caught a flyer and no one seemed to be going, then take them wire to wire - like the Louisiana Derby. Charlie broke like a rocket and with Rock Your World being a tad slow into stride, it made all the sense in the world for Flavien to go the lead — we loved his aggressiveness and have no regrets whatsoever. However, how can you not be concerned when the opening quarter of a mile went in 22.78 seconds and the opening half-mile in 46.49 seconds? I turned to the crew after seeing the timer on the jumbotron and said, “He is going to have to be Secretariat to win!” 

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

Those splits are almost impossible for any horse, let alone a 3-year-old, to maintain. Still, Charlie fought admirably and left it all on the track, being the incredible competitor that he is. He gave us yet another thrill as he battled 2-year-old champion Essential Quality all the way to finish line, ultimately being beat roughly a length at the wire. Hats off to all the connections of Essential Quality — he is a true champ and certainly the leader of the division.

We went to the barn after the race to show Charlie some love and see what kind of toll that huge effort might have taken on him. Incredibly, he was bright-eyed and extremely alert — he even playfully took a small chunk off the hind end of one of the people in our group!

The Hot Rod Charlie social media buzz that ensued in the coming days was amazing and so well deserved. It was very gratifying to see our amazing four-legged friend add so many new fans, even in defeat. If anyone questioned his quality or his heart before the Belmont, there is no doubting either of those now.

After the race, Team O'Neill, Roadrunner Racing, William Strauss, Gainesway Farm, and the Boat Racing team agreed that after the extremely strenuous effort the best thing for Charlie upon arriving back in California was to take the tack off and let him simply be a horse for the next couple of weeks. But it was clear that after a couple days, Charlie was not looking for a vacation.

In the words of assistant trainer Leandro Mora, a crucial member of Team O'Neill, "I can't keep tack-walking him or he'll tear down the barn!" That is when the entire team decided that it may be worthwhile to start looking at the Haskell or the Jim Dandy, with the former eventually being chosen based on it's "Win and You're In" status, the fact that it's a Grade 1, and the generous hospitality and accepting nature of the Monmouth Park team.

One experiment that has been a bit fun since the Belmont has been having Charlie run without blinkers. He needed them as a 2-year-old to help him focus. He was much more immature then — think adolescent boy who gets distracted by anything he sees. He was constantly looking around during workouts and races, and even sometimes jumped shadows.

He is so much more adult-like now and Flavien, who is aboard for most of his works and whom we trust wholeheartedly, believes he will be even more responsive without blinkers. He has worked without blinkers three times now and gallops everyday without them,and has been all business on each occasion. I think our little guy is finally all grown up! 

Hot Rod Charlie, in the red shadow roll, races down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Our ultimate goal is the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. Knock on wood he stays healthy and continues to love running, the big question is determining the best path to get there. If all goes well on Saturday, we are looking at three possibilities for his next start: the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 25, the Runhappy Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28 or the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 25 at Parx Racing outside of Philadelphia.

The Travers or Pennsylvania Derby provide one last chance to run against 3-year-olds. The Pacific Classic, although we would have to face older horses, would allow us to avoid yet another cross country ship to the East Coast and prep at the track that will host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

Team O’Neill will look to Charlie to tell us what is best depending on how he comes out of the Haskell, but we aren't looking past the Haskell on Saturday. It is a terrific field and we respect all entrants, which is why it is so crazy to us that we are 6-5 on the morning line. We haven't been favored since a maiden try on grass at Del Mar last September! There is no doubt the entire team is on pins and needles and will be nervous all the way until post time.

As for Charlie, I am sure he won't even flinch. He is much cooler than any of us.

Looking back on this entire journey since the Breeders Cup at Keeneland last fall, it is hard to put into words the feelings we have when we think about Charlie and the amazing ride he has provided to us all. We talk about this often. It is incredible how one amazing horse can bring so many people together — both lifelong family members and friends that we haven't seen in years and new friends we have met along the way. We thank Charlie everyday. He is special to us and we hope that Saturday is the day he breaks through with that Grade 1 victory he deserves.

Thank you, Charlie, for everything.

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