Hot Rod Charlie with Joel Rosario aboard wins the 108th running of the #1,000,000 Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. Hodges Photography / Lou Hodgeds, Jr.

by Danny Brewer

Now that the dust has settled from an exciting Triple Crown series, the three year old male division is preparing for the summer races that will likely decide year end honors. Of course the Breeders’ Cup is the end goal for most, but one runner in particular is looking to white smoke his tires on July 17 in the Haskell.

Hot Rod Charlie has quickly become one of the most loveable figures in the Thoroughbred racing game. Running out of the Doug O’Neill barn, this son of Oxbow has every bit of his dad’s determination. The love affair with fans began when he ran huge in a second place finish during the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1. After stamping himself as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender with a gutsy gate to wire win over a salty field in the 2021 Louisiana Derby, the pony palpitations were even more present.

Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, people became even more familiar with the real Hot Rod story and how a team of young and old guys got together. Donating a portion of all of the winnings to cancer research, Boat Racing, Strauss Brothers, Gainesway Stable, and RoadRunner Racing and their tale is one of the really “feel good” stories in the sport.

The world’s most famous race did not necessarily turn out the way team Hot Rod wanted as some early traffic problems resulted in a third place finish. Much like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his Kentucky Derby effort was encouraging as he finished just over a length from the front despite the obstacles he encountered.

Choosing to skip the Preakness, O’Neill sent Hot Rod Charlie into the Belmont with eyes on opening up that dual line double pumping carburetor. His horsepower on the front end had allowed for success in the Louisiana Derby and the crafty California-based conditioner wanted to see Charlie have a chance to release the hounds without hindrance.

The plan worked wonderfully for over a mile and a quarter. Breaking well without spinning out, Charlie bolted to the lead. Pushed early by Rock Your World and France Go de Ina, he refused to give up the poll position despite suicidal opening fractions ( 22.78 opening quarter, 46.49 half mile) for a race of this length. As the two early challengers faded, the pony with the posi-trac rear end was still there maintaining the lead as they turned for home. In one of the most courageous stretch runs ever, Hot Rod Charlie battled brilliantly with a late running Essential Quality. Unfortunately for the heroic grandson of Indian Charlie, the Belmont Stakes is a mile and a half race and he ran out of gas in the final furlong.

“I am more proud of Charlie’s Belmont run than of any other horse I have had that didn’t win”, says O’Neill, who has won over 2,000 races. “To run those early fractions and still be there at the end is amazing. He’s got so much heart and courage.”

Those very qualities have made this Hot Rod a hero to many. After a brief break and a little fine tuning, Monmouth Park and the $1 million Haskell is next. As is the case with most Hot Rods, adjustments can be made to increase horsepower and in this case, O’Neill will remove the blinkers after some encouraging recent works.

“Early in his career, he needed the blinkers to help him focus, but now he has matured and we think it will benefit him to run without them”, says O’Neill. “We have worked him without blinkers recently and he has that competitive nature where he wants to separate himself from other horses.”

The mile and an eighth Haskell has long featured some of the top three year old runners as they race for glory. Past winners include names like Bet Twice, Holy Bull, Point Given, Rachel Alexandra, Big Brown, American Pharoah, and Authentic just to name a few. This year’s field is likely to feature Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun and Triple Crown toughened Midnight Bourbon. With the highly successful Flavien Prat back in the irons, Charlie’s plan for victory is pretty simple.

“We just want a clean break and a clean trip”, says O’Neill. “With a 19 horse field in the Derby the traffic caused him to hit the brakes some early and we think that compromised our chance of winning. In the Belmont everything worked out great, we just had to run too fast too early. He looks great right now and we are really excited about this opportunity.”

As is the case with most runners in this game, the only race to think about is the one directly in front of you. With the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar as the likely year end target, the Hot Rod team is currently focusing on a big Haskell run.

“He came out of a very tough Belmont in great shape and we have developed a good foundation for him”, says O’Neill. “We are not looking past the Haskell right now. This is a big race for us and we just want him to remain healthy. He’s happy to be a race horse and loves doing what he does. We just want to continue this amazing ride. Let’s get lucky!”

The Haskell will be the headliner of a card that will feature six stakes races. First post is set for 12:15 pm eastern at the Oceanport, New Jersey track.