Hot Rod Charlie is among the favorites for this year’s Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, coming to New York on June 5. ABR’s Penelope Miller met up with the fan favorite on Thursday morning as he trained for the Test of the Champion.
I arrived at Belmont bright (well, overcast) and early on Thursday morning and made my way to Barn 36, where trainer Doug O’Neill is housed for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Hot Rod Charlie, one of the favorites for the Belmont Stakes, was in his stall getting his party clothes on for his gallop as his groom Eddie Barron carefully made sure the colt had his tack (the saddle and bridle) was secure and comfortable.
Doug O’Neill explained that Hot Rod Charlie’s morning routine is pretty much the same as it is at their home base in Southern California.
“Generally, back home, his day would start at 5:30. We show up, check on him, take his bandages off of his legs, and then check his feed tub. He went out religiously at 6:50 a.m. back home, but here we’ve been going out a little bit later after the renovation — we wait for the track to be fresh at 8:45.”
As Hot Rod Charlie waited to head out to train, members of co-owners Boat Racing showed up to spend a little time with their Belmont horse as pony horse extraordinaire Lava Man looked on.
Moments later, it was time for Hot Rod Charlie to stretch his legs by taking a few laps around the barn as pigeons waited until the last moment to move out of the way.
Thankfully, Hot Rod Charlie is a pretty unflappable horse — in fact, his personality is one of the things that has made him a barn favorite.
“I love so many things about him,” O’Neill explained. “He’s just personable. When one of his team members or even a stranger walks up the shedrow [the walking area surrounding the stalls in a barn] he’ll come right to the front of the stall and he’s just a happy kind of horse.”
After a walking warm-up, it was time for Hot Rod Charlie and his regular exercise rider Jonny Garcia to join up and make their way to the racetrack, accompanied by Lava Man.
Unfortunately, since rain was coming, a last-minute change of plans moved Hot Rod Charlie’s gallop from the main track to the training track. I was already at the former, but my friend and fellow photographer Eric Kalet was right there and captured a video of “Chuck” — as he’s affectionately known around the barn — as he galloped by.
Once back at the barn, it was bath time for Hot Rod Charlie, and once again groom Eddie Barron took the utmost care to ensure that his colt will be in tip-top shape for Saturday’s main event.
Team Boat Racing was on hand, too, taking photos and soaking in the moment.
After his bath, Hot Rod Charlie donned a very special blanket as he cooled out from his workout, emblazoned on both sides with logos commemorating the life of Jake Panus, the 16-year-old son of ABR’s President Stephen Panus, whose life was tragically cut short last summer in a car accident. The blanket spreads the word about two scholarships honoring Jake’s life: the logo of the bear represents the Red Shirt Table, an education initiative benefiting the children of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where Jake volunteered; and the South Carolina Gamecocks logo is for the Jake Panus Walk-On Football Endowed Scholarship, which was a dream of Jake’s.
When Doug O’Neill found the news about Jake’s loss, he searched for a way to keep the boy’s memory alive.
“Stephen and I had befriended each other a couple of years back, and I hadn’t heard from Stephen in a while. I reached out to him, and that’s when he told me the tragedy about Jake. I told him that I love you, I’m with you, and just let me know if there’s anything at all I can do. And after the first round of horrible grieving, he came up with the idea of the scholarships in Jake’s name. I never met Jake, but I knew a lot of him through his dad constantly talking about him and being so proud of him, and I know he played football in high school and one of his dreams was to walk on and play football at South Carolina. It’s a great way to keep Jake alive with us, and I hope to be a small part of it for a long time to come.”