Travels with Charlie

The fans have spoken and the horse with the popular name is also the most popular horse, winning the Secretariat Vox Populi Award. Here is the story behind the charismatic and courageous Hot Rod Charlie. ~ Steve Haskin

Travels with Charlie

By Steve Haskin

My apologies to John Steinbeck for stealing his title, and Hot Rod Charlie is by no means as compatible a traveling companion as Steinbeck’s pet poodle Charley. But Steinbeck did conclude his 10,000-mile journey in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, which were all stops for Hot Rod Charlie on his 25,000-mile trek across the United States and back to California that included 10 cross-country flights and stops in New Orleans, Louisville, New York City, Oceanport, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Back home he made appearances in Los Angeles and Del Mar.

No one can deny the courage, fortitude, and consistency of this year’s top 3-year-olds. And they did stir our emotions. We saw the outpouring of love and admiration for Medina Spirit following the colt’s tragic death last week that deeply affected so many people. In many ways, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie, as well as Essential Quality, mirrored one another in the way they battled hard race after race without wavering even once. Any of the three would have been a worthy Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner.

But in the end, Hot Rod Charlie was voted the award by racing fans mainly because of his consistency, resiliency, toughness, and traveling all over the country to take on the best over any distance and any racetrack. What also separated him from the others is that many regarded him as a hard-luck horse who always tried his best, but often came up just short, with almost every race being a mini-drama. And because of that, they were always pulling for him to land one of the major races.

One of his most heartbreaking defeats, which may very well have endeared him to the public even more, was running such a gutsy race in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified. And this followed a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, which was considered by many as one of the greatest losing efforts in memory. To then travel back east for the fifth time this year and finally get that elusive Grade 1 victory in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby only increased his fan base and put him in position to be seriously considered for the Vox Populi Award.

And how can you not be a fan of a horse who, from November 6, 2020 to November 6, 2021, ran in eight races (six of them Grade 1) at eight different racetracks in six different states and never finished worse than fourth (excluding his disqualification), while finishing in the top three in seven of them.

To demonstrate how versatile he was and how he could be placed anywhere on the track, he won or placed at seven different distances from five furlongs on the grass to 1 ½ miles on dirt , and in his half-mile calls he was first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh, finishing in the money in all of them.

In his final start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was the only horse who posed a serious threat to the front-running older horse and likely Horse of the Year Knicks Go, making a move along the inside and getting almost on even terms nearing the eighth pole. But he was unable to sustain his move and was passed by fellow 3-year-olds Medina Spirit and Essential Quality, who finished just three-quarters of a length and a length ahead of him. Always in the mix, in Charlie’s previous defeats he was beaten three quarters of a length, a neck, one length, 1 ¼ lengths, and on a disqualification.

Despite all the hard races and all the traveling, he ran a career-high Beyer speed figure of 111 in his next-to-last start in the Pennsylvania Derby, the fastest non-sprint number by any 3-year-old this year. Perhaps he peaked in that race or perhaps the tough races and the traveling since January finally caught to him in the final furlong of the Classic. But he never stopped trying.

Before we go over all the stops in our Travels With Charlie let’s start at the beginning when Sean Feld called Doug O’Neill’s brother Dennis, who buys many of Doug’s horses at the sale, and told him that he and his father Bob were selling a half-brother to sprint champion Mitole by Oxbow at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale that he really liked, but there was no interest in him and he was getting little action. So Feld sent Dennis photos of the colt and a video of him walking and Dennis fell in love with him. He then called Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing, which had been buying only 2-year-olds and told him, “I’ve got a yearling you might want to buy.

Helm wasn’t sure his five partners wanted to invest in a yearling so he sent them an email trying to convince them to put up more money, explaining that he was a half-brother to Mitole and could make a good sprinter, and they all agreed. “That’s why we named him Hot Rod,” Helm explained. “We thought he would be a bullet.”

Dennis bought him for $110,000 with Roadrunner Stable going in for half and Dennis getting Bill Strauss and Boat Racing to go in for the other half.

Boat Racing is comprised of five college buddies and football teammates from Brown University, who formed a strong brotherhood after graduating. Heading the partnership is Doug and Dennis O’Neill’s nephew Patrick O’Neill, who became the spokesman for the group, who named the stable after a beer game from their college days and have been vocal and fun loving at all of Charlie’s races.

“The Boat Racing guys are a unique addition to racing,” Helm said. “To bring in that kind of youth and energy and devotion helps give the sport the strength it once had.”

That youthful energy was on display at the Breeders’ Cup post position draw, at which there is little reaction when a number is called. But, even though post positions had little significance in the Classic, when Hot Rod Charlie drew post 3, a huge cheer went up, much to the amusement of the crowd. It was Helm who played up to the Boat Racing boys’ exuberance, telling them before the draw, “No matter what post we draw, let’s make some noise.”

Patrick told Lenny Shulman of Blood Horse, “It’s been incredible. I can’t even put into words the experience we’re having. It’s so cool to be able to share this with family and my best friends in the world. It’s been a remarkable journey; crazy how one horse can bring so many people together.”

Hot Rod Charlie also has been running for a cause, with a portion of his earnings going to fight melanoma, which claimed the lives of Doug and Dennis’ brothers Danny and David at an early age. Dennis fought the same disease and was able to beat it.

Charlie’s career had started off rather uneventful. Because of the colt’s illustrious brother, Doug started him off at five furlongs, once on dirt and once on grass, but troubled starts cost him any shot at victory. He was then stretched out to a mile on grass, but ran a non-threatening fifth. What was most disappointing was that he was the favorite in all three races. Doug put blinkers on Charlie in a one-mile maiden race on dirt and he showed much more life, battling every step of the way to win by a neck over John Shirreffs’ highly regarded Parnelli.

Following the race Doug shocked Dennis when he told him that this was a different horse now and that he was going to run him next in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Dennis admitted he thought Doug was crazy, but the colt nearly pulled it off at 94-1, battling the undefeated grade 1 winner Essential Quality to the wire, getting beat only three-quarters of a length.

In his 3-year-old debut, the Robert Lewis Stakes, Charlie got bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot in the stretch while in tight quarters between horses and finished a game third, beaten a neck, by Medina Spirit in a three-horse photo. He then wired his field in the Louisiana Derby, run for the first time at the extended distance of 1 3/16 miles. In the Kentucky Derby, he had to check passing the finish line the first time, right behind Medina Spirit, dropping back to fifth. He fought hard in the stretch, but fell a length short of catching Medina Spirit and Mandaloun, although he did out-battle Essential Quality for third.

He then provided one of the greatest second place efforts in the history of the Belmont Stakes, battling on the lead through a torrid half in :46 2/5, which was only a fifth of a second slower than Secretariat ran in his record Belmont victory. Again, he wouldn’t quit in the stretch, but just couldn’t hold off Essential Quality, who was able to sit back off that pace and wear him down, winning by 1 1/4 lengths with an 11 ¼-length gap to the third horse, Preakness winner Rombauer. It was the second fastest Belmont in the last 20 years, with only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running faster. And this followed the second fastest Kentucky Derby in the last 20 years. The only Derby run faster was by Authentic the year before, but that race was run in September because of Covid when the 3-year-olds were far more advanced and experienced.

Charlie appeared to have finally landed his elusive Grade 1 victory when he out-battled Mandaloun by a nose in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified and placed seventh for interfering with Midnight Bourbon in the stretch. Despite another gutsy performance going for naught, Charlie missed the stakes record by only a fifth of a second and the track record by two-fifths. After the race, Bill Strauss told Helm, “We got Haskelled.” When the group later purchased a Practical Joke colt at the sale they named him Haskelled.

Everything finally went right for Charlie in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and he had no trouble winning wire-to-wire by 2 ¼ lengths, earning his career-high 111 Beyer speed figure, but once again had to survive a foul claim for drifting out at the top of the stretch.

The previously mentioned Breeders’ Cup Classic was anticlimactic, but no one held Charlie’s fourth-place finish against him, knowing he gave 100 percent once again and was the first one to go after Knicks Go, which may well have cost him second or third. Even with only the two stakes victories and losing the rich Haskell purse, Charlie still ended the year with earnings of over $2 million.

“It was a heartbreaking, but exhilarating year,” Helm said. “It breaks your heart when he doesn’t quite get there, but he always puts everything into it and that’s why the people voted for him. We realized how popular he was when so many people at the Breeders’ Cup asked us for his hat. Charlie doesn’t fit the mold of your typical classic racehorse other than the size of his heart. When I think of the ride he’s taken us on it blows your mind.”

Contrary to the last two years when the Vox Populi Award was given to the eventual Horse of the Year,  this year the fans voted for a horse who has no championship aspirations, unlike Knicks Go, Essential Quality, and Medina Spirit. They threw away the stats and went with their heart, which was founder Penny Chenery’s intent when she created this award. Charlie showed that the true qualities of the Thoroughbred are not always determined by the number of victories as much as the fight and desire to attain those victories. And no one fought harder race after race than Hot Rod Charlie.

Photo courtesy of Coady Photography


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