The sound could be heard coming from a part of the mobbed track apron, just east of the finish line. It was the second day of the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar and it was getting close to post time for the Classic, the biggest race of the event.
The voices were loud, clear and sounded on the young side.
“Let’s go Chuck. Let’s Go Chuck. Let’s go Chuck.”
It was the sound of a group of five former Brown University football players, who through a minority interest in a modestly priced horse, lived a dream and brought vitality to a sport sorely in need of it. Their enthusiasm was infectious and those around them added to the noise.
“There were a lot of people that day that joined in,” said Reiley Higgins, who along with Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Patrick O’Neill and Alex Quoyeser make up the racing syndicate called Boat Racing, named for a college beer drinking game. At the time Hot Rod Charlie was purchased, they owned 25% of the horse along with majority partner Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing and Bill Strauss of San Diego. Gainesway Farm, which will take the horse when he becomes a stallion, bought in just before the Kentucky Derby.
Hot Rod Charlie, or Chuck, was one of the biggest feel-good stories of a racing year tinged with controversy. As a 2-year-old in 2020, he surprised everyone by finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1. So, they thought he might be Derby horse. He proved them right when he won the Louisiana Derby as a 3-year-old and earned enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
“He fulfilled every dream of anyone who ever wanted to go to the Derby, except winning it, of course,” said Doug O’Neill, who has trained two Kentucky Derby winners.
Hot Rod Charlie finished third in the Derby and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yet he will most be remembered for his run in the Belmont Stakes, where he set very fast fractions in the 1 1/2-mile race and hung on for a tough stretch battle, finishing second to Essential Quality. Some horse racing sites have called it the best race of the year.
“When he was setting those fractions, it was tough,” Higgins said. “I gave him very little chance that he could go wire to wire but when we saw him at the top of stretch — when Essential Quality initially passed him — he was still going and came back and made a stretch duel out of it. It was unbelievable. I was blown away by his heart and performance. We knew we had a really fun horse.”
Even though Hot Rod Charlie is a 3-year-old until Jan. 1, when all horses get a year older, his race Sunday on opening day at Santa Anita has everyone looking forward to his 4-year-old campaign. He’ll be the favorite in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Antonio Stakes on a day in which there are six graded stakes races, three of them Grade 1.
It will the 85th time that Santa Anita has conducted its signature meeting. The track is hoping for some normalcy after being forced to close for a few weeks in 2019 because of a spike in fatalities and then two years when the coronavirus impacted the fan experience and racing schedule. Things are still not back to normal as fans will be required to show a vaccination card or proof of a negative coronavirus test and wear a mask, even when outside. First post is 11 a.m.
Hot Rod Charlie will share the spotlight with Flightline, who has won his only two starts by a combined 26 lengths. The 3-year-old, who was bought for $1 million, will be going in the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes.
For now, the name recognition and enhanced resume belongs to Hot Rod Charlie, who has earned about $2 million in his seven starts.
“It been an absolutely unbelievable ride,” Higgins said. “A dream come true. Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined a much more fun year.”
Perhaps the toughest race for fans of Hot Rod Charlie was the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park in July, his first race after the Belmont Stakes. He crossed the finish line first for what would have been his first Grade 1 win, but he was disqualified for interference.
“It was obviously a gut punch when it happened but looking back, it wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen to us,” Higgins said. “It enhanced the story of Hot Rod Charlie and made him a more lovable and fun horse to watch.”
Hot Rod Charlie won his next race, the Pennylvania Derby, giving him his first Grade 1 win, something that is considered a necessity for a lucrative career as a stallion.
The colt’s owners and trainer are hoping to get one more full year of racing out of the horse, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on Nov. 5. Before that happens, he needs some success as he starts to pick up a lot of frequent flier miles. He’s being pointed to the $12-million Dubai World Cup on March 26.
“Ideally, if he comes out of Sunday in good shape, we’ll probably ship him to Dubai in the middle of January,” O’Neill said. “He’ll do a prep [race] over there in February. We’re following a pattern similar to California Chrome,” who won Dubai in 2016.
So, Sunday might be the last time we see Hot Rod Charlie in the United States until the summer or fall.
It wouldn’t surprise if some members of the Boat Racing syndicate went to Dubai to see Chuck run. If they don’t, they’ve reinvested some of their winnings in two other horses. One of them, Franklin One Star, a $32,000 purchase, won his first race at Los Alamitos earlier this month.
How was the horse named?
Franklin One Star is the brand of table tennis balls often used in beer pong.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.