Hot Rod Charlie turned in another excellent performance Saturday in the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park. He crossed the wire first, but the stewards justifiably disqualified the son of Oxbow for shifting in front of Midnight Bourbon without proper clearance, which subsequently caused that rival to clip heels and dump jockey Paco Lopez.
Midnight Bourbon and Paco Lopez will return to fight another day. Thankfully, Joel Rosario on Following Sea was able to steer clear of Lopez.
As for Hot Rod Charlie, there is an argument to label him as the best 3-year-old dirt router right now. He keeps firing big races, and the Haskell effort also let observers know he does not need the lead to finish first.
Here is a recap of the race.
Hot Rod Charlie broke well under jockey Flavien Prat. If Prat wanted, Hot Rod Charlie was capable of contesting the lead with Following Sea and Midnight Bourbon. Prat chose to take back and let the other two battle.
Midnight Bourbon initially ran on even terms with Following Sea, which put intense pressure on the first-time router. He then gave Following Sea about a half-length of space.
The first two fractions went in 23.82 and 47.32 seconds.
Hot Rod Charlie spent most of the backside traveling in a great position in third, right outside of Mandaloun in fourth. The stalking pair were a few lengths ahead of the overmatched trio of Pickin’ Time, Basso and Antigravity at the rear of the field.
On the far turn, Midnight Bourbon put away Following Sea after six furlongs in 1:10.64. He became under attack though from Hot Rod Charlie on the outside and Mandaloun on the inside. Hot Rod Charlie held the better rallying position in comparison to Mandaloun, and the race would likely go to him once he could engage Mandaloun.
Hot Rod Charlie began moving left too early and probably without Prat’s consent, as Midnight Bourbon kept fighting in between horses and still held right of way in the middle lane. Mandaloun ran only slightly ahead of Midnight Bourbon. There is little doubt that Midnight Bourbon was going to lose, but he had something left in the tank.
Midnight Bourbon kept it close enough that he clipped heels when Hot Rod Charlie came over. Would the crop prevent this incident? That is a different debate.
In any case, Hot Rod Charlie went on to engage Mandaloun on the inside and always held a small advantage in their final battle toward the wire to cross the wire first by a nose. Regardless of the disqualification, Hot Rod Charlie ran a great race to cross the wire first, ahead of Mandaloun, Midnight Bourbon and Following Sea, three big names in the division.
To most pace handicappers, Hot Rod Charlie also performed just as well or better than Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes. Despite the first half of the race burning out the presser Rock Your World and France Go de Ina, Hot Rod Charlie kept fighting in the stretch run after taking all the heat in the first half.
Hot Rod Charlie also finished third in the Kentucky Derby and first in the Louisiana Derby (G2) back in late March. In his more recent form though, he looks a step better than his form from those two races.
Mandaloun has been referred to as the Derby winner, but that ruling is not official yet. He went on to skip the rest of the Triple Crown and take the easy route in the local Pegasus Stakes. Although Mandaloun ran well in the Haskell and stands as the official winner, he was outfinished again in an important race, similar to the Kentucky Derby when second.
Essential Quality won the Southwest Stakes (G3), Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and Belmont Stakes. However, the fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with little excuse stands as a blemish. Perhaps Essential Quality will impress everyone in his next two races at Saratoga.
Looking through Hot Rod Charlie’s entire past performances, every single one of his dirt races are good. He shows a 7: 2-2-2 record on dirt, with the lone trifecta miss coming in his career debut while running five furlongs one year ago at Del Mar.
Even though Hot Rod Charlie lost the Haskell via disqualification, he receives the same credit for winning from a handicapping standpoint, at least from this writer. In the immediate moment, he is the best 3-year-old dirt router out there.
Will Mandaloun ever be declared the Kentucky Derby winner? Whether he finally wins the Derby or not, the process is taking too long.
Assuming his more revered stablemate Essential Quality runs in the Travers Stakes (G1) too, bettors might receive some value on Mandaloun if he runs in the same race.
Midnight Bourbon seemed destined to run third by two or three lengths before the foul by Hot Rod Charlie. The pace battle with Following Sea weakened Midnight Bourbon before the stretch. In retrospect, if Midnight Bourbon had left Following Sea alone, maybe Following Sea would have folded anyway due to poor stamina.
If Following Sea’s soul is not crushed by folding in the Haskell, perhaps he can bounce back in a top sprint race such as the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at Saratoga.
Hot Rod Charlie has earned high respect on this blog for two straight races. Expect another big race from him, whether it comes in the Pacific Classic (G1), Travers or even the Pennsylvania Derby (G1).