Doug O’Neill is nothing if not confident about Hot Rod Charlie’s chances in Saturday’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky,
Of course, that’s not headline-worthy information for the trainer who turns 53 on May 24. He already has two victories in the Run for the Roses on his growing resume, in 2012 with 15-1 outsider I’ll Have Another and in 2016 with 2-1 favorite Nyquist.
It’s also not breaking news that O’Neill generally and refreshingly sees the glass as half full, and such is the case with Hot Rod Charlie, who worked six furlongs in 1:13.68 at Santa Anita Saturday prior to the first race.
It was Hot Rod Charlie’s final major breeze for the 147th Kentucky Derby, and O’Neill was still well-satisfied after he had a chance to sleep on it.
“I’m very happy,” O’Neill said by phone at 7 o’clock Sunday morning as he waited to board a plane that would lead him to the Bluegrass State. “He went very nice, very steady. It was exactly what we had hoped for, and Flavvy was very happy with it as well. That means a lot.”
“Flavvy” would be Flavien Prat, Santa Anita’s runaway leading rider with a 93-54 bulge over runner-up Juan Hernandez. Prat was aboard Hot Rod Charlie for Saturday’s workout and rides him in the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
“They’re all individual horses, but we’re optimistic,” O’Neill said when asked if there was a difference approaching Saturday’s classic from his previous two experiences.
“But this year the Derby does seem like it’s really wide open. It will be interesting to see where we draw (post positions will be announced on Tuesday) and how he settles in. He ships today and we’re eager to see him at Churchill Downs and how he does.
“But like Nyquist and I’ll Have Another, we’re excited about the opportunity. He’s a good shipper (having finished second by less than a length at odds of 94-1 to undefeated Eclipse Award champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last year, and winning the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds on March 20).”
Hot Rod Charlie, a Kentucky-bred son of Oxbow owned by Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, LLC and William Strauss, will have elite company on his journey.
“His mentor, Lava Man, is going with him,” O’Neill said, referring to the fabled gelding who celebrated his 20th birthday this year and is affectionately called “The Coach” by stable staff.
“He’s funny,” O’Neill said of Lava Man, now a stable pony after a storybook career as a racehorse, once claimed for $50,000, winner of 17 of 47 races, earner of $5,268,706 and elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.
“With his shirt on and a saddle on, he looks great. But like me, when you see him with his shirt off, you can tell he’s 20.”
Not to worry. As Mark Twain once said, “Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been,” and for Team O’Neill, there have been plenty.
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