First, it was blinkers off for Hot Rod Charlie. Then, blinkers on for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Now, the colt will finish his 3-year-old season in Sunday’s Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita without blinkers.

Hot Rod Charlie-San Antonio
Hot Rod Charlie, seen turning away Midnight Bourbon in September’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, comes into Sunday’s San Antonio Stakes as the 6/5 morning-line favorite. (Image: Equi-Photo)

This is a case of trainer Doug O’Neill going back to what worked before for the Belmont Stakes runner-up and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher. He won the Pennsylvania Derby and the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, although he was disqualified and placed seventh in the Haskell due to interference.

Even there, O’Neill saw enough of the Oxbow colt’s immaturity to put French blinkers on before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. There, with the smaller-style blinkers, Hot Rod Charlie finished a game fourth to Knicks Go. He put the only serious challenge to the presumed Horse of the Year.

“He was a bit erratic down the lane in two races before the Classic, so we figured the blinkers on would be beneficial in the Breeders’ Cup,” O’Neill told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden. “But we’re removing them for the San Antonio and I think we’ll know more after the race.”

Hot Rod Charlie favored against older horses

Sunday’s San Antonio is one of six stakes races on Santa Anita’s traditional day-after-Christmas opening day. The Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile test puts Hot Rod Charlie against older horses for the second consecutive time, and it does so putting Hot Rod Charlie as the 6/5 morning-line favorite.

The San Antonio serves as one of the main preps for March’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. In Hot Rod Charlie’s case, it could serve as a prep for a Middle East excursion to Dubai for the March 26 Dubai World Cup. Greg Helm, who heads Roadrunner Racing – one of four entities that own the colt – said the plan all along was to race Hot Rod Charlie as a 4-year-old. And the Middle East was a target.

And why not? Hot Rod Charlie banked more than $2 million in 2021, going 2-1-2 in his seven races. Five of the seven were Grade 1s. The others were graded stakes events, illustrating that O’Neill and Hot Rod Charlie tangled with top competition throughout the year. His two in-the-money finishes in the Triple Crown events and gutsy fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic attest to that fact.

“He’s training well and we’re excited about opening day,” O’Neill said.