Trainer Doug O'Neill experienced the agony and ecstasy of racing early Saturday evening at Monmouth Park, all in the span of less than 10 minutes. First, his star 3-year-old Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow) won a hard-fought stretch battle in the GI TVG.com Haskell S., which would have been the colt's first Grade I victory after a handful of near-misses.
But quickly after the race, in which Hot Rod Charlie came in on Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) and the latter soon stumbled and lost rider Paco Lopez, the red inquiry sign lit up on the toteboard. The stewards eventually disqualified 'Charlie', demoting him to last, a decision O'Neill expressed some issue with while sitting down with the crew from the TDN Writers' Room podcast presented by Keeneland for a wide-ranging discussion Wednesday morning. The podcast can be viewed here; the audio-only version can be found here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
“Obviously, I'm so biased, but I thought the disqualification was a little questionable,” he said. “But that's part of the sport, right? It's part of all sports. Sometimes, you think you're safe at home and you're not. It's just a very unfortunate thing, but we're extremely fortunate that both Paco and Midnight Bourbon are OK.”
Debate has raged in the hours and days since the near-disaster in the Haskell about whether or not the whip ban instituted by the New Jersey Racing Commission at Monmouth took away a tool jockey Flavien Prat could have used to prevent the spill. O'Neill, the Green Group Guest of the Week, was cautious with his words, but made clear his disagreement with the new crop rules.
“It's interesting to me how a lot of people make rules who can't really relate to what's going on,” he said. “I wouldn't want to get too involved in the details because I've never been a jockey, but I know a lot of top riders [disagree with the ban]. The riding crop has evolved. It's so ridiculously subtle, and it really just serves as a reminder every now and then. These horses are big animals and the connection between horse and human is strong, but sometimes you need to encourage them to do something you want to do, which a lot of times is to separate from whoever they're running alongside. So yeah, I do wish they'd reconsider that.”
O'Neill, who got choked up on the NBC telecast of the Haskell, explained the roller coaster of emotions he felt from when the gates opened to the time the DQ was announced.
“I'm king of a big softie in that way,” he said. “I got a little emotional seeing Eddie, Hot Rod Charlie's groom, hand off Charlie to Lava Man leaving the paddock, because those two horses have been so amazing to me. I love them both. I watched the race on the apron and never saw anything happen. So I was just elated; I thought we won. All the hard work that Eddie and Johnny and the rest of the team had put in every day leading up to this, I was like, 'Wow, Charlie did it, man. Charlie did it.' Then when I got down there and they said a rider went down, I'm like, 'What?' So that added all kinds of craziness to it and it was a real unique experience. Again, I was just grateful when I heard Paco was going to be OK and that the horse was up running around. So that was all good.”
As for what's next for his current star as he continues to hunt that elusive Grade I, O'Neill was noncommittal, but indicated he was leaning towards either giving Hot Rod Charlie a slight break or running him against elders in the GI TVG Pacific Classic Aug. 21 at Del Mar.
“The beauty of Bill Strauss and Greg Helms and my nephew Patrick, who own him and are very connected with him, is they've been so patient along the way,” he said. “And I think that's why we're seeing a 3-year-old who ran in the Derby who seems like he's just getting better and better. A lot of that, I think, is due to spacing and patience. So under that mindset, I got a feeling that we might not run for a little bit. We'll just have to play it by ear. We're stabled here at beautiful Del Mar Racetrack and Del Mar management's been great. So the Pacific Classic is definitely circled on our calendar, but by no means will we force the issue if we feel we're not ready.”
Elsewhere on Wednesday's podcast, which is also sponsored by West Point Thoroughbreds, the Minnesota Racehorse Engagement Project and Legacy Bloodstock, the writers broke down a stellar opening week of racing at Saratoga and the injunctive relief Bob Baffert received last week to be able to race in New York.