Well-traveled Hot Rod Charlie revving up for Saturday’s Whitney

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Assistant trainer Leandro Mora holds Hot Rod Charlie as the colt grazes outside their barn at the Oklahoma Training Track on Thursday morning.

SARATOGA SPRINGS – His name suggests short bursts of travel at high speed.

His resume suggests the opposite.

Hot Rod Charlie’s rollicking long-distance tour continues on Saturday with his first-ever appearance at Saratoga Race Course, in the $1 million Grade I Whitney.

This will be Hot Rod Charlie’s 10th different track in 17 career starts, and as an indication that he can run well anywhere, the 4-year-old son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow had an easy gallop on the Saratoga main track on Thursday morning with regular exercise rider C.J. Legette and did so without getting winded.

“I love it,” trainer Doug O’Neill’s assistant Leandro Mora said. “It looked like he was floating on it. He galloped really, really, really good. And what I liked about it was he wasn’t making any puffing noise, which is good for him.

“It’s a good way to breathe. When they puff a lot, it means they’re trying more than what they can do. He didn’t have that today, so that’s a good sign.”

Hot Rod Charlie’s big trip this year was to Dubai for the $12 million Dubai World Cup, where he was second by a length and three-quarters to Country Grammer after having won a round of the Al Maktoum Challenge as a prep in February.

O’Neill is based in California, but Hot Rod Charlie has shipped to race in Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“He’s got more miles than Pope Francis,” Mora said with a laugh. “He’s a good traveler. Everywhere he goes, it feels like home. It’s easy to train a nice horse like this.”

It seems like Hot Rod Charlie is a candidate for an adventure wherever he goes.

It took him four tries to break his maiden as a 2-year-old, after which O’Neill sent him straight to the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to make his stakes debut, at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.

If the toteboard is a platform for free speech, the message from the betting public that day was, “What’re you, nuts?!”

Hot Rod Charlie, owned by Bill Strauss, Gainesway Stable, Roadrunner Racing and a group of fun-loving young former Brown University football teammates that includes O’Neill’s nephew, was sent off at odds of 94-1.

He finished second by three-quarters of a length to Essential Quality, the eventual two-time Eclipse Award winner, to trigger a fifty-cent trifecta that paid almost $2,000.

The fun was just beginning.

After winning the Louisiana Derby, Hot Rod Charlie came close to winning the Kentucky Derby but was third, a length behind Medina Spirit, a result that would turn into second place when Medina Spirit was disqualified months later for a drug positive.

Hot Rod Charlie was a close second to his old buddy Essential Quality in the Belmont, then finished first in two straight Grade I stakes, but could only enjoy one of them, after being disqualified from his nose win over Mandaloun in the Haskell at Monmouth Park for drifting in on Midnight Bourbon and causing him to clip heels.

After the two races in Dubai this season, Hot Rod Charlie led in the Salvator Mile but was caught late by Mind Control as a bridge race to the Whitney.

“They had a meeting about two weeks after we landed from Dubai, and they gave him one race in between, anywhere, so we picked the one at Monmouth, and then the Whitney came along,” Mora said. “Then we’ll probably keep him in Kentucky, if everything goes well, and maybe another race, then it’s straight to the Breeders’ Cup.”

Flavien Prat will ride Hot Rod Charlie again on Saturday, after Mike Smith was aboard for the Salvator Mile.

Prat piloted Hot Rod Charlie through most of his 3-year-old season last year and was on him for the Dubai World Cup. Despite just four career wins, the colt, who frequently is involved in tight finishes, has over $5 million in career purse earnings, much of that from the chunk he got for finishing second in the $12 million Dubai World Cup.

“To Flavien’s way of thinking right now, he’s got to redeem himself,” Mora said. “He rode him well, but it was not the right trip. He still ran huge, so I think Flavien has a good way to think over here.

“I was there for 2 1-2 months, and I got to know the track very well. The locals kept telling me, ‘Be careful of the dirt, it hits pretty heavy on horses.’ Because he won the previous race in the clear, with no dirt on his face, when the World Cup came up, we were unlucky to sit behind someone, dirt started kicking back and that’s when he started to feel awkward.

“Finally, Flavien got him in a good spot and opened up a little bit, and that’s when he made  his way up. We were happy to finish second, but for him, it was a tough trip. We got a good second out of him.”

Hot Rod Charlie found a good spot to nibble some grass next to barn 74 on the Oklahoma Training Track Thursday morning, after the gallop.

Mora said the colt has made himself right at home here, and with the extra assurance of a comfortable move around the main track, the Hot Rod Charlie camp feels good about Saturday’s Whitney.

“He doesn’t even break a sweat,” Mora said. “Some horses, when you put them on the van, they start to get a little nervous, because they know what they’re going to do.

“He was a great shipper. He likes to travel, so that feels good when the horse travels and goes into the stall, rolls and eats his meals. It feels like he’s been there forever and it makes us feel really good. In his 4-year-old year, I think he got more mature, and now we’re waiting for him to explode. Hopefully, this is the time.”

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