A varied ownership group spanning multiple generations will be on hand at Belmont Park to cheer on Hot Rod Charlie in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on June 5.
Trained by Doug O’Neill, the son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow is owned by Bill Strauss, Greg Helm and Roadrunner Racing, as well as Boat Racing, which is headed by the conditioner’s nephew, Patrick O’Neill, and made up of five friends who met when playing football for Brown University – Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins, Alex Quoyeser and Eric Armagost.
Strauss and Helm bring years of knowledge and wisdom to the table, while the youngsters from Boat Racing provide youth, energy and charisma. The difference in generation is noticeable, but they all share a passion for horse racing.
Strauss, the founder of ProFlowers.com, enjoyed top-level success as co-owner of graded stakes winners Turbulent Descent, The Pamplemousse and two-time Breeders’ Cup-winner Mizdirection.
“Our backgrounds are so diverse and so different. We all come from different life experiences, but when it comes to plotting out how to campaign ‘Charlie’, we come to an agreement,” said Strauss, 62. “It’s been great. These are friends I have for life. It’s nice when you hit your 60s and you’re still making new friends.”
Helm, a semi-retired ad executive, races under the Roadrunner Racing moniker with friends from San Joaquin Country Club in California. Prior to Roadrunner Racing, Helm and his wife Glenna were a part of racing syndicates on the west coast.
“It feels great. I have terrific respect for the Boat Racing guys. They’re terrific people, true gentlemen and great fun to be with,” said Helm. “It’s been a joy to be partnered with them and Bill, as well.”
While Strauss and Helm are seasoned veterans, the 28-year-old Patrick O’Neill and his four college friends bring fresh faces to the game.
“It’s been a very fun experience. I have to give a lot of credit to Bill and Greg Helm,” O’Neill said. “They’re kids at heart and they’re bringing that same energy that we’re bringing. It’s a complementary relationship and it’s been such a fun ride.”
Hot Rod Charlie, a $110,000 purchase 2019 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale, added blinkers when graduating at fourth asking in October traveling one-mile on the main track at Santa Anita. He had previously tried his luck in a pair of turf maiden special weights at Del Mar.
“We had tried different things with him, but things didn’t click until his fourth start, where we went two turns on the dirt with blinkers on. That’s when he sprang up and ran a different race,” Strauss said. “He was training sensationally coming out of that race. The light bulb went on.”
Hot Rod Charlie arrived at the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) as the longest shot in a field of 14, going to post at 94-1 odds.
“He was competitive based on that first race he won. His numbers matched up pretty well with the rest of the field,” Strauss recalled. “He was training well and he fit numbers-wise, so we decided to take a shot. When a horse is two, they change so much from race to race, and he was changing so much in front of us day to day and week to week, but looking at the odds I was thinking ‘Gosh, I hope we don’t get embarrassed. I don’t think I had ever had a horse in a race at 94-1.’”
Strauss and company felt the opposite of embarrassed once the race was over when Hot Rod Charlie ran a strong second to Belmont Stakes-rival Essential Quality in the Juvenile.
Hot Rod Charlie carried his effort into a close third in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis in January at Santa Anita ahead of a two-length triumph in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in March at Fair Grounds Race Course, where jockey Joel Rosario sent him straight to the front and never looked back.
“After the Breeders’ Cup, we gave him some time off. Young horses need time off after the big race he had run that day,” Strauss said. “Doug knows how to get it done. The goal wasn’t the Bob Lewis in February, it was the Kentucky Derby in May. When we came to New Orleans, he was fitter and tighter. It was Joel’s idea to send him to the front, and as you can see it worked out perfectly.”
Hot Rod Charlie did not disgrace his connections in the “Run for the Roses,” finishing a length shy of victory in third.
“We had some high expectations going into Kentucky. If you asked me six months ago if I would take third in the Kentucky Derby, I’d be thrilled,” Strauss said. “Turning for home it looked like we could win. No disappointment. Everything about the day, week and race itself surpassed my expectations. We had lots of close friends and family with us. We’re going to do it all again this week and hopefully get it done on Saturday afternoon.”
Heading into Saturday’s engagement, Patrick O’Neill and his college friends are soaking up every minute of action as they dive deeper into their love and appreciation of the sport.
“Patrick was always watching TVG. We’d watch it in the film room sometimes when we were supposed to be watching football stuff,” said Giovacchini. “We slowly started to ask questions and started to want to know more about it. A few years later, we were all at Del Mar and we decided why not take a shot together?”
Higgins said he’s enjoying the moment.
“We bring the enthusiasm, they bring the brains. It’s been an amazing experience for us all,” Higgins said. “Personally, I’ve been trying to soak up every second of this as have as much fun as I possibly can. I know these guys have been doing the exact same thing. We realize how lucky and blessed we are to be in this position. That’s been my takeaway from this whole thing.”
Quoyeser said the team appreciates each and every part of the race-day experience.
“After spending one day with Team O’Neill at the track and getting in the winner’s circle, it’s hard not to have a good time,” he said. “A day at the track isn’t just about the horses, it’s about the people you’re spending time with all day. You’re just having a good time drinking, eating and gambling.
“We’re enjoying every second of it,” Quoyeser added. “We’re going to be doing every activity we can all week while we’re here in New York. For the Kentucky Derby, we brought 160 of our closest friends and family to the track and this week we’ll have dozens. We’re very blessed to have the opportunity to be here, but also to share this with people we care about.”
Should Hot Rod Charlie’s Belmont Stakes endeavor be successful, it won’t just mean more good times for his enthusiastic owners.
“It would validate Charlie as being a great horse,” Strauss said. “He’s in the top tier of the 3-year-old division. He’s always right there against the best. Winning this race – an American Classic race, will memorialize him and put him on the charts and give him the recognition he deserves. It would solidify everything we think he is. Hopefully it set us up for this year and beyond.”