The fields for the 14 races that comprise the Breeders’ Cup World Championships begin to really come into focus in late summer and early fall.
The “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series offers the winners of specific individual races an expenses-paid starting spot for corresponding Breeders’ Cup races. There were no Challenge Series races last weekend; however, the winner of a $1 million race on Sept. 25 established himself as a clear top contender for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic: Hot Rod Charlie.
Last Saturday at Parx Racing, Hot Rod Charlie delivered a career-best performance in the Pennsylvania Derby to earn his first Grade 1 win, $573,000 in purse earnings, and the best speed figures of his career for a 2 ¼-length win.
Let’s take a closer look at the evolution of this exciting 3-year-old racehorse.
There is much to like about Hot Rod Charlie – from him name to his fun-loving co-owners to his connections with charity and much more – and he burst onto the national horse racing scene when he finished second at 94.40-1 odds in the 2020 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
The dark bay or brown colt by 2013 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow needed time and some experimentation early in his career to find his best distance and surface. Trainer Doug O’Neill tried him sprinting on the dirt, sprinting on grass, and stretching out in distance on the turf before he secured a breakthrough win Oct. 2, 2020 at Santa Anita Park in a one-mile dirt race. It was off that maiden win that Hot Rod Charlie was tested in the Breeders’ Cup, and he far exceeded expectations when second at those massive odds to eventual 2-year-old champion Essential Quality.
Hot Rod Charlie ran third, beaten by just a neck, in the $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in his first race as a 3-year-old before landing his first stakes win and punching his ticket to the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with a two-length score in the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.
Hot Rod Charlie, six months earlier a 94-1 outsider in his stakes debut, was the third betting choice in the Kentucky Derby May 1 and entering the stretch at Churchill Downs he had a great shot to win. He was among four horses battling to the finish line within about a length of each other, and Hot Rod Charlie wound up third behind Medina Spirit and Mandaloun while a head in front of Essential Quality.
In defeat, Hot Rod Charlie proved as much on the track as he had in any other race, matching strides with the best of his generation at 1 ¼ miles while earning a then-career best 109 Equibase Speed Figure and 100 Beyer Speed Figure as well as equaling his top 100 Brisnet speed rating.
The Kentucky Derby is a taxing race mentally and physically. It can be very difficult for a young racehorse to recover from facing the best quality of competition to date in his career in front of 100,000 people, while also stretching out to 1 ¼ miles for the first time. Many 3-year-olds need some extra time off or a few races to get back to peak condition after the Derby, while others can regress significantly from the stress of getting to and competing in the run for the roses.
Not Hot Rod Charlie. If anything, he has been even better in three races since then.
He ran an absolute monster race when setting a blistering pace in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, in which he finished second to Essential Quality. He then crossed the finish line first in the $1 million TVG Haskell Stakes only to be disqualified for interference in the stretch. On Sept. 25 at Parx, he came through in a big way in the Pennsylvania Derby to pick up his first Grade 1 win after three previous top-three finishes and one victory lost to disqualification.
Hot Rod Charlie surged away to prevail by 2 ¼ lengths in the Pennsylvania Derby under jockey Flavien Prat, an eye-catching victory that looked just as good on paper when the speed figures were calculated.
Hot Rod Charlie improved seven points to a 120 Equibase Speed Figure from his previous top of 113 for the Haskell; he improved from a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in the Belmont Stakes to a 111; and Hot Rod Charlie equaled the 110 Brisnet rating he earned in the Belmont Stakes.
Those numbers indicate a 3-year-old still on the rise and one very likely capable of holding his own against older males later this fall. That challenge – facing older males – typically is a major hurdle for a 3-year-old in the final few months of the year that separates the very good from the truly elite.
Hot Rod Charlie has tactical speed and the versatility to be effective on the lead or rating just off the pace, and his speed figures have been terrific in spring-summer. He also won’t need to ship cross-country, as he has done for his last five starts, for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar since he’s based in Southern California with O’Neill.
America’s Best Racing has been running diaries since the start of the Triple Crown trail with Hot Rod Charlie’s part-owner Patrick O’Neill of Boat Racing, the nephew of both trainer Doug O’Neill and bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill.
Hot Rod Charlie is owned by the partnership of Greg Helm’s Roadrunner Racing, William Strauss, Gainesway Stable, and the aforementioned Boat Racing. Patrick O’Neill and his former Brown University football teammates Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins, and Alex Quoyeser created Boat Racing as a way to stay connected. The partnership is named for a beer-chugging game they played as Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers. Hot Rod Charlie is the third racehorse the partnership has owned and he’s taken them on the ride of a lifetime.
Trainer Doug O’Neill won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and in 2016 won the Derby again with Nyquist, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victor and champion 2-year-old male. O’Neill also has five Breeders’ Cup wins on his résumé.
Hot Rod Charlie’s connections have been involved in multiple charitable endeavors during his 3-year-old season, including donating a portion of his earnings to the Melanoma Research Alliance. Patrick O’Neill’s father and his uncle both died from that type of cancer.
The owners also used the Derby spotlight and beyond to help support the Jake Panus Walk-on Football Endowed Scholarship. Jake Panus died in a car accident at age 16 in 2020. O’Neill said after connecting with Stephen Panus, Jake’s father, Boat Racing embraced the opportunity to support the Jake Panus Walk-on Football Endowed Scholarship and created a saddle towel for Hot Rod Charlie in Jake’s honor to try to spread the word on the scholarship.
Hot Rod Charlie is from the fourth crop of 2013 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow, by Awesome Again. Hot Rod Charlie is one of nine stakes winners and three group or graded stakes winners sired by Oxbow and is his leading earner to date.
Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie, is the dam (mother) of Hot Rod Charlie as well as his half-brother (same dam, different sire) Mitole, the 2019 Eclipse Award winner as champion male sprinter. Mitole boasted blazing speed and had the stamina to stretch out in distance to win the Grade 1 Runhappy Met Mile in 2019. Hot Rod Charlie’s grandam (maternal grandmother) is stakes winner and graded stakes producer Glacken’s Gal, by Smoke Glacken.
Prior to the Kentucky Derby there was some concern about Hot Rod Charlie’s distance limitations, but given his performance in that 1 ¼-mile race, the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, and the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby those questions have been sufficiently answered.
My biggest question regarding Hot Rod Charlie is can he continue to improve or at least stay at this level into the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Classic after a taxing run through the Triple Crown into the summer. He seemed to have plenty of fuel in the tank last weekend, so I think he’s established himself as a top contender for the $6 million race at Del Mar.