As we roll down the road of life, it is understood certain trips are better than others. You hang in there during the bad times and rejoice during the good ones. For one of the top Thoroughbred trainers in the world, it is all smiles as he prepares his horse for the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes.
Doug O’Neill has enjoyed many “huge” wins during his time as a trainer. Based on the West coast, he has enjoyed multiple training titles at the major California tracks and won the Kentucky Derby twice (2012 I’ll Have Another, 2016 Nyquist). As he prepares his latest stable star for a run at Belmont glory, this winner of over 2,000 races has been enjoying the ride with Hot Rod Charlie.
Owned by a partnership that includes his nephew Patrick, O’Neill has fine tuned this Hot Rod and saw him white smoke the tires in the Louisiana Derby. Coming up just short in the Kentucky Derby with a third place finish, the excitement has continued. Running hard every time out, this son of Oxbow has given his team plenty of thrills since last fall.
“I would be lying if I said this has not been a special ride for all of us”, says O’Neill. “My nephew Patrick and some of his high school football buddies own 25% of Charlie. Roadrunner Racing, Gainesway Thoroughbreds, and Strauss Brothers Racing own the other portions. There is an age gap between them but the dynamics are really cool. The older guys want to be like the young guys and the young guys want to become established like the older guys. It has been lots of fun.”
Part of the fun of course has come from a very competitive horse at the game’s top level. It began at the 2020 Breeder’s Cup when Charlie finished a hard-fought second at odds of 94-1 in the Juvenile. Having earned his first win just a month earlier in his fourth career start, the Hot Rod was just ¾ of a length from shocking the world.
“That Breeders’ Cup run confirmed what we thought he was“, says O’Neill. “He has always had a great personality and is really comfortable in his own skin. His demeanor is just fantastic because he combines cool with competitive.”
Following his powerful gate to wire win in the Louisiana Derby, it looked as if O’Neill had the horsepower to get his third win in the world’s most famous race. Stalking the pace, the Hot Rod swung outside under jockey Flavien Prat at the top of the stretch but could not overcome the frontrunners on a speed biased surface.
“I am very proud of his effort and I think Flavien had him right where he needed to be”, says the first man to win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year with one horse (Lava Man 2006). “The track was playing in favor of the front end speed and we just could not get by them.”
After sitting out the Preakness, Charlie is ready to roll in the mile and a half “test of a champion” known as the Belmont Stakes. A good mix of speed and stamina with a versatile running style, Hot Rod will have Prat back aboard after California’s top jock rode West coast based Rombauer to victory in the Preakness.
“We are thrilled to have Flavien back aboard”, says O’ Neill. “He has worked the horse a lot so he is very familiar with him. Prat is a great rider that is a huge asset, especially in a race like this.”
The prestigious Belmont Stakes is the third leg of the Triple Crown and it’s $1.5 million purse will bring out some of the division’s best. Preakness winner Rombauer is likely to be there along with Juvenile champion Essential Quality. New York training staple Todd Pletcher will also send some of his stable stars forward. With a field that may approach ten runners, O’Neill understands this is no easy task. But he also feels a finely tuned Hot Rod is fun to run and can be hard to beat.
“We welcome the opportunity to run against some of the best in the division”, says O’Neill. “Hot Rod has filled out and will be fresh after the five week break. The distance does not bother us as we think he is sure footed and versatile enough to be there at the end. We certainly respect all of the other runners but with this Hot Rod we don’t have to fear any of them. If he runs his race and comes out healthy it should be a lot of fun.”
The Belmont will be run on June 5 at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.