Patrick O'Neill Diary: Bye-Bye Haskell, Hello Pennsylvania Derby for Hot Rod Charlie

The Life
Hot Rod Charlie with trainer Doug O’Neill at Parx Racing before the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 25. (Nikki Sherman/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, Sept. 23: 2 p.m.-8 p.m. ET on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Friday, Sept. 24: 12:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. ET on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Saturday, Sept. 25: 12:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Sunday, Sept. 26: 12:30 p.m.-6 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 of sales and strategic partnerships at Founder Sport Group 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. Hot Rod Charlie won the 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. He later crossed the finish line first in the Haskell Stakes, but was subsequently disqualified and placed last for a traffic incident in midstretch.

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 their installment ahead of the $1 million, Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby on Saturday at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa.

Every day is a good day when you are blessed to be a part of Charlie, but ... we probably should have known Haskell day was not going to be a “great” day with the way July 17 started.

Since the Boat Racing crew and many of our close friends in Southern California did not want to miss Opening Day at Del Mar — what we thought was a sound decision and at the time seemed to be a wise choice given the unmatched fun we had that day (and night) — fellow Boat Racing member, Dan, and I booked a 6 a.m. flight the next morning direct from San Diego to Newark, N.J. Making the obvious assumption that commercial airlines such as United are always on time and never have issues, we believed we would have plenty of time to Uber to Monmouth Park and see Charlie compete in the $1 million Haskell.

Hot Rod Charlie, near, crossed finish line first in Haskell. (Eclipse Sportswire)

We were minutes away from landing at Newark — tray table was up, seat reversed from its decline position, saliva wiped away from the unfortunate guy next to me, and the plane was declining in altitude — when the pilot announced that a storm had unexpectedly rolled through the area. No big deal. I fly a ton for work and simply thought they’ll find a window in the storm, we’ll land, and we’ll still make the race with plenty of time to spare. Forty-five minutes later of circling the airport and now myself and Dan are now starting to sweat with worry. After 15 more minutes go by, what we thought would be our worst nightmare of the day became a reality when the pilot announced, “Passengers ... there does not seem to be an end to this storm and we’re now running low on fuel. We have been cleared to land in Cleveland and will provide more information on future travels to Newark from the ground. Please prepare for landing.” In our head, this was a lot of fancy pilot talk for, “You’re doomed.”

We land in Cleveland and Dan and I are in utter shock. However, when you play enough competitive sports, and as we become a little bit longer in the tooth, you quickly realize that life is about making lemonade out of lemons at every opportunity. Here was that opportunity — Cleveland International Airport’s United Club became the official party venue for the Haskell. We can’t tell you how many amazing people we met in that lounge who tuned in with us to watch Charlie strut his stuff on NBC (side shoutout to Britney Eurton, Eddie Olczyk, and Laffit Pincay III for the job they did in a tough situation on live air). Mission accomplished. Lemonade created ... with a splash of soda and a bigger splash of tequila.

With Alex, Eric, and Reiley back at Del Mar FaceTiming us live, Charlie breaks amazing and, as always, Flavien Prat has him in the perfect spot based on the pace of the race. Turning for home, it seemed like the entire Cleveland airport was on Charlie’s back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something strange happen to Midnight Bourbon, but wasn’t entirely sure, so I moved on mentally seeing that Charlie was gaining on Mandaloun with every stride. (Side note: This is not right, but it always seems that when I have a rooting interest in a horse in any race – whether owning or gambling, you get tunnel vision and are not real receptive to what else is going on in the race). Charlie puts his head down first at the wire and the United Lounge goes bananas! I somewhat remember football bumping Dan and then embracing every United Lounge bartender in arms reach.

After 60 seconds of exhilaration, I spot on the TV the NBC crew talking about something, but it continues to be muted by the celebration that has ensued. After some “shush’s” and a visual of NBC’s replay, we all realize together that Charlie had clipped heels with Midnight Bourbon and that the stewards would have no choice but to disqualify him. The celebration was over as quickly as it had started and it was nothing but stunned silence. Thinking back, I feel horrible for the people in the lounge ... can you imagine how awkward it was for them?

There is a widely accepted concept in sports that you are granted one night to think about a loss and learn from it, and then the next morning you refocus your mindset on the next game. After a strange dinner in Cleveland and waking up at 4 a.m. the next morning to go back to San Diego, it was time to put on the big boy pants, put some perspective on the last 24 hours, and think about the next game.

“Uncle Doug” informed us late that evening and first thing in the morning that Charlie was healthy outside of some minor knicks, and we continuously saw positive tweets that Midnight Bourbon and Paco Lopez were also unharmed. After that bit of news, the rest was whipped cream, cherries, and a dousing of sprinkles. As much as it may not be believed, the “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup, the money, the reputation of winning the famous stallion-making race like the Haskell Invitational are all nice, but it wasn’t what made us jump around in joy in a random airport lounge in Cleveland or Facetime in excitement on a random Saturday in August with our best friends. It was our love for Charlie, Charlie putting his everything into another top competitive sporting event, and enjoying it with our loved ones. Once again, we had won before the gates ever opened. The only area we do get a little “salty” from time to time is when we think about Charlie. … He’s run so incredible in so many top races in a row and still doesn’t have a Grade 1 to his name to signify he is among the top of his class. Horse racing doesn’t owe anything to anyone, but we are hopeful Charlie’s time will come soon.

After the Haskell events, the team huddled up, led by Roadrunner Racing and Bill Strauss, and agreed within minutes that the plan should be for Charlie to tell us what is best for him moving forward. It was clear that as tough as the dude is, he was desiring some more time than was typical for him to recover, given the Haskell tragedy and his long campaign since the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in January. After a couple weeks letting him enjoy being a horse again, you could see in his demeanor that only after a couple weeks, he was wanting to get back out on that track. At that point, the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby became an option. With each work, it became more of a reality and here we are on the Thursday before the big event.

We didn’t decide to run because we thought the Pennsylvania Derby would be an easy spot. It definitely will not be, even with Medina Spirit withdrawing. There are some extremely talented and well-bred, late-developing 3-year-olds that have every right to make a splash this fall and into the 2022 calendar as 4-year-olds. Charlie will also have his hands full from post seven, especially with the highly talented and high cruising speed of Midnight Bourbon just to his outside. While we expect to be forwardly placed, Charlie has shown he can run big whether he is on the lead or sitting in a stalking position. He has a great relationship with Flavien and Flavien is as good as it gets. We’ll let Flavien do what he does and navigate the best trip based on Flavien’s own discretion.

Charlie is doing fantastic and has maintained, if not put on some weight since the Haskell. Team O’Neill has done an incredible job managing his campaign this entire year and we once again have no excuses. Being around Charlie at the barn on the Parx backside this week quickly reminds you how fortunate we are to be part of this animal ... and whether he knows it or not, he has given us more reps to master the thinking that bad times are only momentary and the good times must be fully embraced because they don’t happen very often.

Bye-bye Haskell, hello Pennsylvania Derby!

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