Division Rankings: Spotlight finally on Hot Rod Charlie

Division Rankings: Spotlight finally on Hot Rod Charlie
Photo: Ernie Belmonte

Hot Rod Charlie has made made quite a name for himself since he entered graded stakes company last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Off at a whopping 94-1, the longest shot of the 14 entered, he gave the winner, Essential Quality, all he could handle.

In four graded stakes start since his coming out party, Hot Rod Charlie has steadily risen through the ranks of his division, but he hasn't been favored in any of those starts. That all changes this weekend in the Haskell (G1) at Monmouth Park.

Before I dive deeper into my Haskell thoughts, and why this is a must win race if Hot Rod Charlie is to stay in this Eclipse race, let's take a look at this week’s updated rankings:

Older dirt males

1. Silver State. Fully entrenched now in this top spot, his lead in this division will be tested in his next start where he will face the No. 2 Maxfield in the Whitney on August 7. The Met Mile (G1) winner has done far more than any other in this division so far in 2021, and is a winner of four stakes races already this year. He won the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) prior to his win in the Met, and has won his last six races dating back to last fall.

2. Maxfield. Got the job done in the Stephen Foster (G2) defeating Warrior's Charge by a little over three lengths. His connections have picked their spots with this son of Street Sense, and he has rewarded them with three graded-stakes wins this season coming over weak fields. Now we are more than halfway through the season and Maxfield has yet to pocket a Grade 1 win. If he wants to contend for an Eclipse, the time to move is now. He will run next in the Whitney at Saratoga, where a win over Silver State would move him to the top.

3. Country Grammer. The Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) winner has been transferred from previous trainer Bob Baffert to his new trainer, Todd Pletcher. He had run two strong races with his rival, Royal Ship, in California but now he will get a chance to reach the top of his division with an expected next start in the Whitney at Saratoga. This guy and Royal Ship, the other California based runner, are sleepers in this division and could walk away with all the hardware by seasons end.

4. By My Standards. Back in the top half of this division, this guy is as honest as they come. Runner-up to Silver State in the Met Mile, he is still searching for his first Grade 1 triumph. Won the Oaklawn Mile in his only other start this season. Will point toward the Whitney as well, and he is a viable contender in a race he was runner-up in a year ago. He sits in this spot instead of Knicks Go because he defeated that rival in the Met Mile.

5. Mystic Guide. The beaten favorite in the Suburban (G2), it really wasn’t much of a surprise to this writer. Sloppy track or no sloppy track, it was disappointing race given the expectations. Part of being good, or even great in this game is adapting to difference race surfaces. Although he came away victorious in the Dubai World Cup previous to the Suburban, it was the weakest renewal in that race’s storied history. He previous claim to fame was a runner-up finish to Happy Saver in a historically light Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) last fall. In other words, this guy still has much to prove. Connections have stated they will skip the Whitney because Maxfield and Silver State are pointed to that spot, interesting. To be fair, his owners also own Maxfield. The Pacific Classic at Del Mar is on the table now given the Breeders’ Cup is held there this fall. Eclipse Awards aren’t won by avoiding the best the division has to offer.

Next 5: Knicks Go, Royal Ship, Max Player, Idol, Happy Saver.

Older dirt females

1. Letruska. Was dominant again in her win in the Fleur de Lis (G2) at Churchill Downs and has given herself a large lead in this division. A Grade 1 winner in both the U.S. and Mexico, she is 15-for-20 in her career. The Personal Ensign (G1) at the end of August at Saratoga is being mentioned as her next start, but don't rule out a possible race again the males down the road too.

2. Shedaresthedevil. Was no match for Letruska in the Phipps and was even passed near the wire for the runner-up spot after chasing Letruska throughout. Previously this gal was much the best in the La Troienne Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs, defeating a good field of older females. Will now head west to prepare for the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar with her next start scheduled to be the Clement L. Hirsch (G1) on Aug. 1 at Del Mar.

3. Monomoy Girl. Was gallant to the finish in the Apple Blossom (G1) but came up a nose short. Clearly still on top of her game, something I wondered about heading into this last race. She was sent to the sidelines with muscle strains and hamstring soreness. Could be back later this summer but might drop from this spot in the coming weeks.

4. Swiss Skydiver. Scratched from the Ogden Phipps because of a fever, she should return in the Shuvee at Saratoga on July 25. Her last start resulted in a seven-length defeat in the Apple Blossom when finishing third. Before that, she was stellar in her Beholder Mile (G1) win at Santa Anita. Has not lost two races in a row in nearly 18 months.

5. As Time Goes By. Game winner of the Santa Maria (G2) last out, she previously routed the Santa Margarita (G2) field. Her only loss this year was a runner-up finish to Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile. Will have home-court advantage come Breeders' Cup time. Will target the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on Aug. 1 at Del Mar.

Next 5: Envoutante, Antoinette, Point of Honor, Spice is Nice, Miss Marissa.

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality. His Belmont win was sensational, and it separates him from several others. Though the Belmont was Essential Quality's first Grade 1 win of the season, he has won two other graded stakes in 2021. There was no Triple Crown on the line in the Belmont, but it proved to be one of the more exciting and satisfying Belmonts we have seen in the last 20 years. As written here weeks ago, he will indeed run in the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga on July 31, using that as a prep for the Travers (G1) in late August. Could have a huge second half of season.

2. Hot Rod Charlie. The time is now for this guy as he has the stage all to himself in this weekend's Haskell. I hate to call it a must win, but that's what it is if an Eclipse is to be won. He needs this Grade 1 on his resume. His Belmont runner-up finish was extraordinary. On the lead from the start, his 22.78 was the fastest opening quarter-mile ever recorded in the Belmont Stakes. His 46.49 opening half-mile was not only the second-fastest since Secretariat in 1973, but the second-fastest ever recorded in the Belmont Stakes. Showing heart in the stretch, he finally gave way in deep stretch, finishing a little over a length behind Essential Quality. The margin back to Rombauer in third place was more than 11 lengths. The show these top two put on will be remembered for a very long time. 

3. Medina Spirit. The Kentucky Derby winner did not run poorly in his Preakness loss, a third-place finish behind the winner, Rombauer. Beaten a little over five lengths, the quick middle fractions that he was forced to set by Midnight Bourbon ended up costing them both the race as Rombauer pounced on both of them in the stretch. Will miss the Haskell, and there is a good chance we may not see him again until the fall.

4. Rombauer. The Preakness winner had no excuses in the Belmont when finishing a far-back third. After edging Known Agenda for the show spot. Connections are have decided to skip the Haskell and point to a more difficult spot, the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 31 to face Essential Quality.

5. Mandaloun. Got the job done in the recent Pegasus at Monmouth, but that type of effort will get him nowhere in next month's Haskell. Still has not been able to put two strong races together in a row. The Kentucky Derby runner-up will go next in this weekend's Haskell where looks to be an underlay. I would be surprised to see him in the winners circle in this spot.

Next 5: Drain the Clock, Jackie's Warrior, Midnight Bourbon, Known Agenda, Life is Good.

3-year-old females

1. Malathaat. Her two Grade 1 wins gets her the nod here for the tops spot, as well as her close win over her rival. She sat out the Acorn (G1), which was won by Search Results. Should return for her first start since her Kentucky Oaks win in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) on July 24. If all goes well there the Alabama Stakes (G1) in August would be next.

2. Search Results. Impressive winner of the recent Acorn, which was her first Grade 1 win. Suffered her only loss, to Malathaat, in the Kentucky Oaks in her prior start, but she was game in defeat. She is another win away from moving to the top. Interestingly, her connections will cut her back to the seven-furlong Test Stakes (G1) on Aug. 7 at Saratoga for her next start.

3. Crazy Beautiful. Maturing by leaps and bounds, she ran another impressive race in the recent Delaware Oaks where she simply outclassed the field by over 7 lengths. She was also flattered by Soothsay's Indiana Oaks win as this gal defeated Soothsay in the Summertime Oaks two starts back. Now she is a winner of three graded stakes this year, the most in her division. She may have turned the corner, and it could be time to take another crack at the top two in this division. Remember, she finished over 10 lengths back of Malathaat and Search Results in the Kentucky Oaks. 

4. Soothsay. It takes a lot for me to really be floored a performance, but that is the best way I can describe what I felt when watching Soothsay come away victorious after rebounding from a nightmarish start in the Indiana Oaks. Showing tremendous fight and determination in the stretch, Soothsay looked like a different horse than the one we saw last out in her loss to Crazy Beautiful in the Summertime Oaks. The Indiana race was her first race outside of Santa Anita too, any way you slice it, she is now a player in this division with the Breeders' Cup in her backyard too. Another that has matured right before our eyes.

5. Clairiere. No excuses in the Mother Goose (G2) where she finished third, and there were no excuses in her previous start, the Kentucky Oaks, as she came with her run and missed the show spot by a nose. I think it is safe to say that she and Travel Column, the two fillies who starred at Fair Grounds earlier this year, were not ready to contend with the best of this division as some would have led you to believe.

Next 5: Will's Secret, Obligatory, Zaajel, Army Wife, Always Carina.

Turf males

1. Domestic Spending. Did not make his first start of 2021 until the start of May but has won two Grade 1 events in both of his starts. His facile Manhattan Stakes (G1) win at Belmont was superb, defeating several others ranked below. Domestic Spending’s season will follow the same path as Bricks and Mortar from two seasons ago, trainer Chad Brown said, with the race that used to be called the Arlington Million, the Mister D. Stakes (G1) on Aug. 14 at Arlington, likely to be the gelding’s next spot.

2. Colonel Liam. Running since December, this guy also has two Grade 1 wins on his resume, but he sports a Grade 2 win in 2021 too. True, he did go down to defeat in the Manhattan, but it was his first loss of 2021. He has been running since January and has won three stakes. Will make his return to the races in the Bowling Green at Saratoga on July 31.

3. Smooth Like Strait. After several close calls in Grade 1 races, he finally came through with his first win at the top level last time out in the Shoemaker Mile (G1) at Santa Anita, where he went wire to wire. Previous to this win, he set the pace in the Turf Classic (G1) and was edged by a neck nearing the wire to finish third. Looks like a serious Breeders' Cup Mile contender down the road. Will target the Eddie Read (G2) on July 24 at Del Mar for his next start.

4. GufoBig things were expected from the Belmont Derby winner a year ago, but he didn't score his first win of the season until just a week ago. Finishing third to Domestic Spending in the Manhattan, he received a confidence booster in the listed Grand Couturier Stakes, defeating five others. Will be back against the big boys at Saratoga in August.

5. Raging Bull. No excuses in his runner-up loss to Oleksandra, a 7-year-old mare making her career finale because she is in foal. Certainly was impressive in his first start this season, a win in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), and remains in the top five for now. Will aim for the Fourstardave (G1) on August 14 at Saratoga for his next start.

Next 5: Channel Maker, Hit the Road, Somelikeithotbrown, Say the Word, Tribhuven.

Turf females

1. Mean Mary. Will pass the upcoming United Nations against the males and instead aim for the Glens Falls, a 1 1/2-mile turf stakes on Aug. 7 at Saratoga, or point for the Beverly D. at 1 3/16 miles the following Saturday at Arlington. Was really flattered with the win by Thundering Nights in an Ireland Group 1 race. Remember, Thundering Nights was runner-up to Mean Mary last out in the New York Stakes (G2). Previous to that winning race, Mean Mary was best in the Gallorette Stakes (G3) at Pimlico.

2. Thundering Nights. Broke through in a big way in the Pretty Polly Stakes, an Irish Group 1. She is ranked here because previous to that she was a strong runner-up to No. 1 Mean Mary in the New York. Will be a serious contender in any races she chooses here in this country.

3. Juliet Foxtrot. Was upset last out in the Mint Julep (G3) at Churchill Downs, losing by a half-length when runner-up to Mintd. Her previous start resulted in a Grade 1 win in the Jenny Wiley, and prior to that she had placed in four Grade 1 events. Her overall 2021 resume keeps her in this spot for now. Will look to get back in the win column in this weekend's Matchmaker (G3) at Monmouth.

Harvey's Lil Goil. Checked in fifth in the New York, but the soft turf might have had something to do with her surprisingly poor showing. Gets a mulligan and stays here for now. Previously, she won her only other start this season, the Beaugay (G3) at Belmont. Can jump right back into the thick of things in this division with a win in this weekend's Grade 1 Diana at Saratoga.

 After four straight runner-up finishes, she finally entered the winners circle with her strong win in the Distaff Turf Mile (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Turf Mile was her first start of 2021; she ended 2020 with a runner-up effort in the Matriarch (G1) at Santa Anita. Was scratched from the recent Just a Game (G1) at Belmont Park.

Next 5: Santa Barbara, Charmaine's Mia, Mucho Unusual, Magic Attitude, Lemista.

Male sprinters

1. C Z Rocket. Has won both his sprint starts this year, defeating last year's Eclipse winner, Whitmore, in the process. Simply put, he has beaten better competition than his next closest rival, Mischevious Alex, has. His connections tried to stretch him out to a mile in the Steve Sexton (G3) at Lone Star last time out, but he finished second. Will head back to California for his next start, the Bing Crosby (G1) at Del Mar on July 31.

2. Mischevious Alex. Tried to stretch out to a mile in the Met Mile, but he flattened in the stretch to finish fourth. Won his first Grade 1 race a few months ago in the Carter (G1) at Aqueduct in impressive fashion, and previously he scored in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3), also impressively.

3. Firenze Fire. Ran another good race in the John A. Nerud (G2) at Belmont, losing a close one to Mind Control. This guy is tough as nails, previously he won the True North (G2) at Belmont for the second year in a row. Not going to penalize him too much for his loss, so he remains in this spot, mainly because I believe he is better than the others below right now. Firenze Fire reminds me a lot of Whitmore from a year ago. A horse I never thought could win an Eclipse, but who was near the top of his division. Perhaps Firenze Fire will be this year's Whitmore. Will meet Mind Control again in the Vanderbilt (G1) on July 31.

4. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran fired again in the True North but was only second best. He is at the top of his game now as he scored his first Grade 1 win two starts ago in the Churchill Downs Stakes. 

5. Whitmore. Another tough loss for this guy as he briefly had the lead late in the Churchill Downs Stakes but was edged at the wire, where he finished a close third in a blanket finish with four others. Previously he was twice runner-up to C Z Rocket at Oaklawn. As honest as they come, he still is at the top of his game. He too may run in the Vanderbilt.

Next 5: Mind Control, Cezanne, Brickyard Ride, Drain the Clock, Special Reserve.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. Was dominant against an overmatched field in the Great Lady M. Stakes (G2) at Los Alamitos last week, and now she will likely head to Saratoga given that trainer Bob Bafferts NYRA suspension is now lifted. Now 3-for-3 on the season, she should stick to sprinting, and the Ballerina (G1) in late August will likely be next. 

2. Bell's the One. Finally showed her true talent in the Roxelana Stakes when defeating Sconsin for her first win in three starts this season. After a disappointing effort when she was off the board in the Derby City Distaff, a strong showing last weekend was needed, and she came firing.

3. Sconsin. Ran well in the Roxelana but Bell's the One was too good. Has run well now in three straight and is in the thick of things in a division that appears very top heavy.

4. Kimari. Still hasn't run since the first week of April. Has posted several works since, but this has been the story of her career. Brilliance when running, but she rarely runs, and this will cost her an Eclipse. In that April start she did not disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4-length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. She needs to run soon or will drop from this spot.

5. Estilo Talentoso. Disappointed as the favorite in the Princess Rooney (G2) at Gulfstream where she was beaten by Ce Ce after being too far back early. She stays here in this spot because she has done a lot already this season, six starts already - stakes placed in all of them - and has faced the best the division has had to offer several times.

Next 5: Ce Ce, Frank's Rockette, Merneith, Venetian Harbor, Souper Sensational.

Make no mistake, this weekend's Haskell is Hot Rod Charlie's race to lose. True, the Haskell also features Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun and Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon, but make no mistake, the race goes though Hot Rod Charlie. 

The presence of the three different runner-up finishers from the Triple Crown series entered in the same race is a racing rarity - it hasn't happened since 2007 when Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun met in the Breeders' Cup Classic. 

Since his maiden win last October, Hot Rod Charlie has been in the middle of all the action in every race he has run. After a winter break he finished a neck and a nose back of Medina Spirit in an exciting Lewis Stakes. His win in the Louisiana Derby came at the expense of his rivals this weekend, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon, and he was one of the main players in that exciting Kentucky Derby stretch drive. 

With each race, the son of Oxbow has earned more respect. And with each race, Hot Rod Charlie has become more and more of a fan favorite. Outside of Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie has become the most dependable horse in training, he shows up, and you know he will be in the thick of things turning for home. 

Last time out Hot Rod Charlie took another step forward with that remarkable Belmont run. Like many others, I am curious to see how he responds in this weekend's race. One thing I am quite sure of, Hot Rod Charlie will not be on the lead like he was in the Belmont. 

Following Sea, trained by Todd Pletcher is the likely speed in this race, and at 3-1 on the morning line, that seems like a big underlay. Sired by the sprinter Runhappy, his dam was a sprinter, and her dam was a sprinter too. In other words, look elsewhere. 

Mandaloun did win the local prep, the Pegasus Stakes, in a lukewarm effort over a weak field. No offense to Mandaloun fans, but I wil take a pass. 

Midnight Bourbon figures to be the toughest hurdle for Hot Rod Charlie. Runner-up in the Preakness last out, Midnight Bourbon couldn't catch Hot Road Charlie in the Louisiana Derby, following him around the Fair Grounds oval in the Louisiana Derby. Midnight Bourbon is better now than he was then, but so is Hot Rod Charlie. 

Running without blinkers this weekend, fans will get a good look at his distinctive white blaze down the middle of his face. Trainer Doug O’Neill hopes this will help Hot Rod Charlie in stretch duals saying, "We're hoping that obviously with some of these stretch duels that racing without them will tip us over onto the winning end of a stretch duel". 

We are past the halfway point of the season now, and it’s go time for Hot Rod Charlie. With the spotlight focused squarely on him in the Haskell, he needs this Grade 1 win on his resume if his connections want any shot at an Eclipse award. 

Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip can be found in the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meet. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his many local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. 

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him.

 The Loss of Medina Spirit

California Chrome in Rarified Air

Cigar and the Pacific Classic

Spending Time With Game on Dude

Go For Wand: Gone But Not Forgotten

Top Stories

Lexington, Ky. Even with court fights and a visit...
Stilleto Boy , winner of last month's Californian...
Siblings of famous horses do not present a good be...
Horse racing has an impossible dream. Knowing ther...
The comeback of trainer Peter Miller begins Sunday...