The last time Hot Rod Charlie arrived at the Breeders’ Cup, he was a 94/1 afterthought in a Juvenile field that included favored Jackie’s Warrior, eventual winner Essential Quality and the highly regarded Keepmeinmind, among other “name” 2-year-olds.

Hot Rod Charlie-BC Classic
Hot Rod Charlie earned his first Grade 1 win with this solid September score in the Pennsylvania Derby. He is the 4/1 third-favorite to win Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Image: Parx Racing)

Name? Hot Rod Charlie had only that cool moniker going for him. Until he nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Breeders’ Cup history. It took one of Essential Quality’s patented stretch rallies to beat the Oxbow colt and the longest shot in the field at the sixteenth pole.

Just like that, Hot Rod Charlie – paying $51.60 to place and $21.40 to show and all – was on the radar. He hasn’t left it since.

Now, the hugely popular colt with the cool name has the cool resume to go with it. He comes into the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic – the highest rent on the high-rent Breeders’ Cup Monopoly board – as a 4/1 third choice. And he comes in as a trendy pick among bettors who think 5/2 favorite Knicks Go can’t handle 10 furlongs and that 3/1 Essential Quality is vulnerable.

Essential Quality 2, Hot Rod Charlie 1

It’s a big ask, especially the latter, since Essential Quality has beaten Hot Rod Charlie in two of their three races. There was last year’s Juvenile and that epic Belmont Stakes duel, when Essential Quality let Hot Rod Charlie clock insane fractions for the 1 ½-mile race – only to catch and pass him in deep stretch yet again.

In between, however, Hot Rod Charlie beat his erstwhile rival in the Kentucky Derby by less than a half-length. Yes, he finished third, but he’s one of three horses who crossed a wire before Essential Quality in nine races.

After that Juvenile near-miss, Hot Rod Charlie finished third in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. That’s when trainer Doug O’Neill put blinkers on him as a way to keep him focused.

“We had tried different things with him but things didn’t click until his fourth start, where he went two turns on the dirt with blinkers on (and won),” Bill Strauss, one of Hot Rod Charlie’s owners, told the Breeders’ Cup notes team. “The light bulb went on.”

Blinkers on, light bulb on

The Louisiana Derby provided the site for that click. O’Neill left the blinkers on for the two Triple Crown races, then decided to take them off for the Haskell in July. That resulted in Hot Rod Charlie wandering into Midnight Bourbon’s path, then getting disqualified for interference.

One start later, Hot Rod Charlie kept them off for the Pennsylvania Derby. That resulted in the colt’s long-awaited first Grade 1 victory, but a victory not without more controversy. Once again, jockey Flavien Prat and Hot Rod Charlie forced the unlucky Midnight Bourbon out wide coming into the stretch. But this time, stewards let Hot Rod Charlie’s victory stand, despite a foul claim.

“It’s something that after the Pennsylvania Derby, Flavien Prat – who is just an amazing horseman and knows Hot Rod Charlie so well – suggested that French up blinkers would benefit him,” O’Neill told Blood-Horse. “He’s had them on in the past. He can get to wandering sometimes and seeing things. So these little set of blinkers will kind of help him stay a little bit more focused. He’s had them on a bunch, so it shouldn’t be an issue, one way or another.”

Speed vs. consistency

Hot Rod Charlie’s versatility and adaptability isn’t quite that of his fellow 3-year-old Essential Quality. He is more of a pace-presser and stalker, whereas Essential Quality has successfully shown every running style. But he has more raw speed than Essential Quality.

“We’ve got options,” O’Neill told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden. “He’s shown he can win on the front or from sitting behind, so I like where we’re at. He’s definitely a versatile colt.”

Hot Rod Charlie’s career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure is second in the field to Knicks Go’s 113. It’s also the fastest Beyer by a 3-year-old at a mile or longer this year. It’s equal to or faster than the Beyers of the last three Classic winners: Authentic (111), Vino Rosso (111) and Accelerate (108). For good measure, Hot Rod Charlie’s 120 Equibase is tied with Art Collector for the top mark on that scale.

And how many people are talking about anyone else’s runner-up finish? Jon White, who wrote the Breeders’ Cup morning line and is an Xpressbet columnist, said Hot Rod Charlie’s Belmont runner-up was one of the most impressive races of the year. He covered the first quarter-mile in 22.78 seconds and the first half in 46.49 – and only lost by 1 ¾ lengths with a 108 Beyer. The only horse in the 95 previous Belmonts run at 1 ½ miles clocking faster splits than that was Secretariat in 1973.

Can Hot Rod Charlie blaze O’Neill’s trail to the winner’s circle?

Now, you understand how far Hot Rod Charlie came in a year. From 94/1 long shot to 4/1 good shot to bring O’Neill his sixth Breeders’ Cup winner – and first in the flagship Classic. O’Neill is 0-for-5, sending out Lava Man (2006), Richard’s Kid (2012), Handsome Mike (2012) and Pavel (2017, 2018).

“It’s nine solid horses and nine solid jockeys, so it’s really all a matter of positioning,” O’Neill said, praising Prat’s riding skill and familiarity with Hot Rod Charlie. “I feel good that we can find ourselves a good spot.”