By Richard Rosenblatt
Floored to the front early on by jockey Joel Rosario, Hot Rod Charlie never looked back in winning the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at the Fair Grounds on Saturday and clinching a spot in the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 1.
With trainer Doug O’Neill back home in California serving a suspension for a drug violation and Leandro Mora the trainer of record, nothing fazed Hot Rod Charlie. A son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow, the colt held off seven rivals, including 6-5 favorite and Risen Star (G2) winner Mandaloun, and Lecomte (G3) winner Midnight Bourbon, who finished second, two lengths behind the winner.
The 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby was the first of eight Kentucky Derby preps offering 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the first four finishers. Winning time for the race was a track record 1:55.06.
“It was very impressive,” Rosario said. “It looked like the horse came on the outside [Midnight Bourbon], he was able to fight back and just not let the horse go by.”
With the victory, Hot Rod Charlie zoomed to the top of the leaderboard with 110 points. It was just his second win in seven starts. Until Saturday, he was best known as the 94-1 runner-up to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on Nov. 6. He was third in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita on Jan. 30.
Now, he’s a Derby definite and Rosario could be on his way to an elusive first victory in the Run for the Roses. Rosario also has been the rider for Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Concert Tour, one of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert’s top Derby contenders.
There was not much drama during the race, with Hot Rod Charlie ($7.80 for a $2 win bet) taking control from the outset and Midnight Bourbon running second the entire way. Mandaloun, who looked like he would move into contention around the far turn, faded in the stretch and finished sixth.
It is unclear whether Mandaloun, trained by Brad Cox, will remain on the Derby trail. He has 52 points and is fourth on the leaderboard, but this was not a strong effort.
Midnight Bourbon, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, picked up 40 Derby qualifying points and moved into second on the leaderboard with 66 points.
O Besos, trained by Greg Foley, finished strong along the rail, and picked up 20 points for third – 11th on the leaderboard with 25 points.
Proxy, second in the Lecomte and the Risen Star, was fourth and picked up 10 points to move into ninth place with 34 points.
Earlier in the day, Baffert-trained Life Is Good sustained a hind-end injury after a workout at Santa Anita and is off the Derby trail. Life Is Good was the 2-1 favorite in the Derby Future Wager (Pool 4).
Owned by Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, and Bill Strauss, Hot Rod Charlie was purchased for $110,000 by Dennis O’Neill, Doug’s brother.
“How could it possibly not feel as good as anybody could ever feel. We’ve got a horse in the Kentucky Derby,” Strauss said. “We’ve been struggling with him to be first every time and he comes in right when we need him.”
Doug O’Neill is a two-time Derby winner, in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and in 2021 with Nyquist.
“We’re just so extremely blessed. It’s a family affair,’’ said Patrick O’Neill, a nephew of Doug O’Neill who was at the race. “We couldn’t be more fortunate. What an amazing horse. What an amazing sport. And we’re going to the Kentucky Derby, hopefully.”