By Katie Petrunyak
Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), runner-up in this year's G1 Dubai World Cup, will return to the starting gate on Saturday in the GIII Salvator Mile S. The winner of last year's GI Pennsylvania Derby and GII Louisiana Derby has put in five works over the past month in preparation for his next start.
“He came back from Dubai in great shape and we intentionally gave him a little extended time between then and now,” said the 4-year-old colt's trainer Doug O'Neill. “He's training with great energy and good stamina. I'm really optimistic about the Salvator Mile being a good stepping stone for the rest of the year. We have the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland circled as our ultimate goal.”
While Hot Rod Charlie will indubitably have a sizeable cheering section at Monmouth this weekend from a partnership that includes Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, Strauss Bros Racing and Gainesway Thoroughbreds, another group of 'Charlie' fans will be watching from back home in Goshen, Kentucky.
Hot Rod Charlie was foaled and raised at Hermitage Farm, a 700-acre commercial Thoroughbred nursery outside of Louisville with a rich history of raising top-class racehorses. The close-knit equine team at Hermitage has kept tabs on the star colt throughout his career.
“We have a text chain that we're all on so we know when to watch,” said Hermitage's farm manager Brian Knippenberg. “With Charlie being on the world stage, I don't think I can even explain how important he is to us. This business can be difficult, so these are the kinds of things that keep us going.”
Hot Rod Charlie's dam Indian Miss (Indian Charlie) was a third-generation broodmare for the late Edward A. Cox Jr., a longstanding Hermitage client. Just one day after Hot Rod Charlie was foaled, the colt's half-brother and future 2019 Eclipse Champion Male Sprinter Mitole (Eskendereya) won his first stakes race.
One of 30-some foals to arrive at Hermitage in the spring 2018, Hot Rod Charlie might stick out slightly in the memories of those who worked with him daily.
“He was deathly ill as a foal,” Knippenberg explained. “He had a pretty serious intestinal infection. We had three foals with the same issue. The other two got over it quickly, but Charlie had a really hard time of it.”
While some foals may have quickly gone sour from receiving constant treatment, Hot Rod Charlie was always a good patient and slowly, he began to improve.
“He let us do what we needed to do to get him well,” Knippenberg said. “He is quite a testament to the clinic that helped us with him and to the people here on the farm who took such good care of him, because obviously he made a full recovery. I think that heart and determination he had then is what got him to where he is today.”
While the blaze-faced weanling continued to improve steadily, his breeder faced a terminal illness. When Cox decided to disperse of his stock at the 2018 fall breeding stock sales, Hermitage's longtime general manager Bill Landes encouraged him to keep the one colt behind.
“Landes told him to wait with selling Charlie because one, this horse had a really exciting family coming up and two, he would need as much time as possible,” Knippenberg recalled.
A few weeks before Cox passed away, Hot Rod Charlie was sold at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky February Mixed Sale, where he brought just $17,000. He was sent to auction again in October and, having continued to blossom with time, sold to Dennis O'Neill for $110,000.
Flash forward almost three years, and the talented colt has earned over $5.1 million and is now pointing for a repeat appearance in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.
“Having a horse like Hot Rod Charlie is such an inspiration and a morale booster,” said Melissa Cozart, the Equine Operations Manager at Hermitage. “It re-energizes everybody because we all get so excited when we have a good horse. Our staff is so involved in the success of each of these horses and they follow them all once they leave here and go into their racing careers.”
An Ongoing Tradition of Success
Established as a Thoroughbred nursery in the mid-1930's by Warner L. Jones, Hermitage Farm has been associated with a myriad of notable horses including 1953 GI Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star, 1967 Kentucky Oaks victress Nancy Jr. and 1988 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Is It True, a son of Hermitage's leading sire Raja Baba.
Hermitage dispersed of their stallions shortly after Is It True's racing career, opting to focus on growing their commercial nursery. Today, they foal out around 35 mares each year and their program includes broodmares, foals, yearlings, layups and rehab cases. Along with Hot Rod Charlie and Mitole, 3-year-old champion and young sire West Coast also once called Hermitage home in recent years.
“Hermitage Farm is unique in that it is one of the only commercial Thoroughbred farms in the Louisville, Kentucky area,” Cozart explained. “We have several clients here in Louisville that want to be close to their horses so they have chosen us as a boarding operation. We work diligently to keep up with everything that is going on in Lexington. We have access to exceptional veterinary care and to the major sale companies and their advising, so we really are a full-service, all-around facility that offers a service for everyone.”
Cozart said that the group of broodmares at Hermitage is made up of an approximate 50-50 split between client-owned and Hermitage-owned mares. They have several exciting Hermitage-bred racehorses in the pipeline this summer including Efficiency (Gun Runner), a Klaravich Stables-owned 3-year-old who broke his maiden at Belmont last month by 11 lengths, as well as Cadillac Candy (Twirling Candy), a juvenile filly who recently broke her maiden at Churchill Downs.
The New Hermitage Farm
Hermitage Farm was purchased over a decade ago by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the entrepreneurs behind the 21c Museum Hotel brand. Since then, the famed property's recognition has grown to a wider audience as it has transformed into a tourist destination.
First, the farm's new owners put Hermitage in agricultural easement, ensuring it will remain farmland for many years to come.
While continuing to grow the Thoroughbred division of the farm, a sport horse division was added. Co-owner Steve Wilson is a four-time champion competitive carriage driver and founded the Kentucky Classic, a marquee event for Combined Driving Event competitors that takes place every other year at Hermitage Farm.
Two years ago, Hermitage Farm's Barn8 restaurant officially opened for business. One of the farm's original barns retained its name and was transformed into a restaurant and bourbon bar that presents a farm-to-table dining experience and a constantly-rotating menu.
“The basic concept of Barn8 is not necessarily Southern food or Kentucky food,” explained Executive Chef Allison Settle. “It's more of making sure that we are a part of the solution to factory farming and overdevelopment, as well as making sure we are providing the season's bounty and accentuating what is good during a particular period. Our philosophy is about making sure that we're providing sustenance as a means to continue farming in the area.”
A sprawling greenhouse adjacent to the restaurant provides much of the produce and herbs served to guests. Settle explained that if the greenhouse's eggplant is ripe for harvest one week, it might be used in an Asian-inspired entree one night and then a Mediterranean lamb-stuffed eggplant the next. Barn8 also partners with farms in the surrounding area to bring in additional locally-grown products.
Settled added that Barn8 is more than just a dining experience.
“We have tours, tastings, mixology classes and pretty much everything that Kentucky does well, we do it here,” Settle said. “We want you to feel comfortable here, it's not stuffy. I think people find it to be a little bit of a vacation.”
Guests can dine at tables running down the main aisle of the barn or enjoy a more private experience at one of the tables in a stall. Some of the stall doors are adorned with the nameplates of Hermitage Farm's most famed broodmares.
Before sitting down to a meal, visitors can tag along on one of the various tours, which range from an art walk and a bourbon tasting experience to a tour of the equine facility. Hermitage's farm store offers farm-grown products, bourbons from around Kentucky and locally-made kitchen utensils and cooking items.
“Hermitage Farm is a really incredible place simply because of the vision of our ownership,” Settle said. “I think what's truly special is that there isn't really an agritourism project like this in the area or maybe even in Kentucky. There is only one place that I'm aware of that if you come to Louisville and you want to see horses, drink really good bourbon and learn about what Kentucky does well, this is the place to go.”
It took a period of adjustment, Cozart admitted, for the Thoroughbred division of Hermitage to acclimate to the many new changes, but she said they are excited about sharing their passion for the industry with new faces every day.
“In recent years, agritourism has become a huge part of Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding farms,” she said. “You're engaging a whole new demographic of people that may not otherwise be exposed to racing. People seem to have a better understanding of where these horses come from once they've seen it, rather than just relying on the public perception of the industry.”
As the farm shares its story to an expanding list of visitors from around the world, and with a horse like Hot Rod Charlie vying for a top position in his division this year, Hermitage Farm's famed legacy not only holds steadfast, but continues to grow.