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Hot Rod Charlie

The ride of a lifetime for a racehorse with local ties to Del Mar

Image Credits Photography by Marla Zanelli

Anyone in the business of owning racehorses dreams of the one that becomes a champion. Many will go a lifetime and not achieve that dream. But every now and then, there is a story that gets larger than life with the excitement it brings to all those lucky enough to be in it. This is such a story — about an average-bred horse, a breeder, a father and son bloodstock team, a bunch of fun-loving guys and gals who were lucky enough to be the owners, and a trainer, whose motto is “Why not us?”

The more prominent thoroughbred sales are in Kentucky, and this is where Hot Rod Charlie was first purchased out of a dispersal sale by Bob and Sean Feld, a father-and-son bloodstock team. They were at the February 2019 Fasig-Tipton Sale shopping for a bargain. They took a look at the Oxbow colt in the James M Herbener Jr consignment, and liked what they saw. This colt was the half-brother to the champion Mitole, but the colt was not popular with buyers because of his sire, Oxbow. The Felds nabbed the colt for a measly $17,000. The goal was to put him back into the sale ring at the Fasig-Tipton October Yearling Sale, the last of the yearling sales in Kentucky for that year.

Entered into the Fasig-Tipton Sale, the Oxbow colt was Hip #631 with no name yet — just an Oxbow colt out of Indian Miss by Indian Charlie, born April 11, 2018. The experienced Feld team sold the colt to Dennis O’Neill for $110,000, a bloodstock agent who has purchased many good horses, including Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another and Nyquist. O’Neill then went looking for his buyer and the colt was syndicated to three different groups of owners.

The majority owner who stepped up to purchase 50 percent of the Oxbow colt was Greg Helm’s Roadrunner Racing. Greg and Glenna Helm live in Palm Desert and spend their summers in Del Mar. Five couples from their country club jumped on board with this new colt who needed a name. Since Mitole was a sprinter, they thought their horse might share his speed. Hence, the name Hot Rod Charlie was chosen.

A second partner who bought into Hot Rod Charlie was Bill Strauss, brother to Jeffrey Strauss, the master chef and owner of Pamplemousse Grille across the street from Del Mar Race Track. No strangers to racing and owning horses, the Strauss brothers have had some excitement in their past endeavors, but nothing like the excitement that was to come.

The third partner was Boat Racing, a group of young men led by Patrick O’Neill, nephew of Doug O’Neill. This group of five were fraternity brothers of Theta Delta Chi at Brown University and teammates on the football team. They went to the races together and, with Uncle Doug being a horse trainer and in the industry for decades, they thought they would take a gamble and get into the game.

Doug said Charlie was a gifted athlete from the beginning, but it took a little while for him to mature mentally. Charlie covered a lot of ground with his long reaching stride. Once Charlie got the hang of winning, he became very competitive. He was a good athlete in the sense that  he would lay down and rest while in his stall, and he loved to eat and train. He was a good feeling colt and his groom Eddie got along with Charlie beautifully. This relationship between groom and horse becomes a strong bond of understanding each other’s likes and dislikes and, for this intelligent breed of horse, how to behave, communicate, and allow the human to take care of you.

After Charlie’s first win, his next race was a huge step up in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland Race Track in Kentucky. Charlie, being only a maiden race winner, was a major long shot. Charlie went off at 94 to 1 and finished second! The excitement was off the charts with second prize money in a $2,000,000 race featuring a take-home of $340,000, which more than paid for Charlie in just race number five of his career.

Horses in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile who finish well are generally pointed to the Kentucky Derby — a once in a lifetime achievement. The Derby is one of the most prestigious races of all time. The week leading up to the Kentucky Derby is full of dreams, hopes, smiles, laughter, tears of joy, and so much more. And in two minutes, all those dreams and hopes are either realized or dashed.

At the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Hot Rod Charlie broke well in a full field of 20 horses. Medina Spirit took the lead. Mandaloun sat second for most of the race. Charlie was laying fifth throughout, but was in a good position. When they turned for home, Charlie turned it on and loomed up into third with Essential Quality fourth on the outside. As the leaders got closer to the wire, the distance between the four horses lessened, each horse looking like he had a shot to win. The finish saw Medina Spirit cross the line first, with Mandaloun second, Hot Rod Charlie third, Essential Quality fourth. 

And with this, their story was just a third into the journey. Charlie skipped the Preakness and ran a dynamite second in the Belmont. He went on to win the Pennsylvania Derby which was one of his best races on paper, finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a hair pulling second to Express Train at Santa Anita in the San Antonio Stakes. 

In 2022, he won the Lukas Classic Stakes, beating Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike. He then took his caravan across the globe to Dubai not once, but twice. Charlie won the 2022 Al Maktoum Challenge easily. Many of his crew went on the adventure, which was another thrill of a lifetime. He ran second in the 2022 Dubai World Cup — a $12 million race. A trip to Dubai is more than going to run your horse, as all the expenses for the horse and their owners, trainer, handlers of the horse, are paid by Meydan Racecourse.

Charlie’s owners have a great love for their horse with a lot of heart that, at the end of his career, earned $5,676,720 in purse money. He took them to places they could only dream of. Today, Hot Rod Charlie is standing at stud at Shadai Stallion Station in Japan, a prominent stallion farm.

And with all the memories, all the success, all the dreams fulfilled, Charlie will forever be in the hearts of those who were around him. By Marla Zanelli


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