DEL MAR, Calif. — When Hot Rod Charlie goes to the racetrack each morning with the “coach,” it’s hard to say who attracts more attention.
“Just look at him, he looks great,” a railbird says, seeming to talk about Hot Rod Charlie, who does indeed look great, with his neck bowed and his determination glistening as he pulls his “coach” around the Del Mar oval in a routine gallop. “He’s so cool.” And indeed he is.
“He looks like you could enter him today,” the railbird’s companion offers, which seems a strange thing to say about a horse who’s already entered in Saturday’s $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Are they talking about Hot Rod Charlie?
“And in a couple months, he’ll be old enough to buy a beer,” the railbird says, closing the door on the conversation. They’re not talking about Hot Rod Charlie, after all, as it turns out, but rather the “coach,” the 20-year-old gelding who accompanies the upstart to the track.
The “coach” is Lava Man, who’s thriving in his second career as a coach-cum-pony. As a racehorse, you might recall, Lava Man won 13 stakes, including three Hollywood Gold Cups (G1), two Santa Anita Handicaps (G1) and a Pacific Classic (G1), and earned more than $5.2 million, a worksheet that put him in the sport’s Hall of Fame and secured him a place of honor in racing fans’ affection.
But this isn’t about Lava Man, except to say that horses, like people, can be judged by the company they keep, and Hot Rod Charlie is keeping eminent company, and that with horses, as with people, keeping the best company can influence development. Hot Rod Charlie, make no mistake, has developed into one of the best racehorses in the country. It’s a progression that could not have been foreseen 16 months ago, when he began his career right here at Del Mar.
He thoroughly disappointed in his debut as the 6-5 favorite, finishing fourth. Moved to the turf, he disappointed again, this time as the 2-1 favorite. Stretching out around two turns, he again disappointed as the 2-1 favorite. He wasn’t much of a hot rod, but more of a good time Charlie, or so it seemed. He was the kid who neglected his potential for the sake of … well, a good time.
Then the development began. With the addition of blinkers, he won going a mile at Santa Anita. And then he finished second in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), something that the ownership group, which included five fraternity brothers who played football together at Brown University and called their partnership Boat Racing, L.L.C., after a beer-chugging game, never could have imagined. Nor could bettors apparently. He was 94-1 on the tote board.
Becoming a racehorse is both a mental and physical journey. It involves as much education as conditioning. And Hot Rod Charlie’s journey has continued this year with his learning the objective of all this running in circles.
“He’s maturing. He’s always shown a lot of talent, but I think he was comfortable being in the pack,” his trainer, Doug O’Neill, said about Hot Rod Charlie. “But now he has learned to be a leader.”
His performance in the Kentucky Derby (G1) might have reflected that herd instinct. In the second turn, he moved outside for a clear path, and at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, where he found such a path, he advanced between Mandaloun and Essential Quality. Momentarily he looked like a winner. But the advance concluded as quickly as it had begun. He finished third, between Mandaloun and Essential Quality. Did he tire, did he hang, or did he, as O’Neill said, find it comfortable running alongside his rivals, in the pack?
But he took a step forward in the Belmont Stakes (G1), where, after leading for much of the race, he gamely dug in and finished second to Essential Quality. In the Haskell (G1), he rallied and finished with determination to put his nose in front of Mandaloun at the wire; yes, for moving into the path of Midnight Bourbon, who fell, the stewards disqualified Hot Rod Charlie. But the determination was there. And it was there when, after a 10-week hiatus, he returned and won the Pennsylvania Derby (G1).
“He’s matured,” O’Neill said. “One of his huge skills is his versatility. He can go right to the lead if the pace is slow, or he can sit back and make a run if the pace is fast. … He has continued to train well here; so we’re optimistic he can maintain his form.”
O’Neill has won more than 2,000 races, including two Kentucky Derbies, a Preakness (G1), and five Breeders’ Cup races in a career that someday could put him in the Hall of Fame with his all-time favorite horse and pony. Explaining he’s confident going into this Classic, O’Neill said he expects a hot pace, with Essential Quality and Max Player being the horses he most fears, and with Hot Rod Charlie rallying from a few lengths off the early lead to assert himself in the stretch.
That’s what the mature Hot Rod Charlie does.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.