Hot Rod Charlie is a family and friends deal at the Kentucky Derby – Daily News

Reiley Higgins, a Santa Margarita High graduate and former Brown University wide receiver, has experienced the highs and the lows of horse racing during his young life.

For instance, imagine, at 5 or 6 years old, getting lost on opening day at Del Mar when there are 40,000 packed around you.

It happened to Higgins.

“I couldn’t find my parents and it was like this big ordeal,” Higgins recalled this week as he and four of his former Brown football teammates prepare to watch their horse, Hot Rod Charlie, run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. “I ended up in the back of a concession stand eating ice cream.”

Higgins was crying, but only for a short while.

“Until I had the ice cream in my hand, and then I was good,” he said.

But life in the Sport of Kings isn’t always so cruel. There are highlights, too.

Higgins and the other four members of Boat Racing – Patrick O’Neill, Dan Giovacchini, Eric Armagost and Alex Quoyeser – are all 28 and own 25% of Hot Rod Charlie, who was purchased for $110,000 at a yearling sale in the fall of 2019. Boat Racing is named for a beer chugging game the quintet played in college.

“We spent just about every waking moment together for four years in college,” Higgins said. “We lived together, we played football together, which might as well have been a fulltime job. A lot of us were in the same classes together. We certainly liked to have fun at night together as well.

“Those four years brought us to be really, really close friends and really even a brotherhood. It’s a very special time in my life that I always reflect on.”

They wanted to continue that bond, so they decided to come up with a bucket list of things to do together. Higgins, the only native Californian of the group, came up with the idea to add horse racing to that bucket list.Higgins, Giovacchini, O’Neill and the latter’s uncle, trainer Doug O’Neill, were hanging out at Del Mar one summer afternoon in 2019 when Boat Racing was launched.

Former college teammates, from left, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins, Alex Quoyeser, Patrick O’Neill and Eric Armagost stand outside the barn housing Kentucky Derby entrant Hot Rod Charlie before a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“I actually turned to Pat and Dan and said, ‘Why don’t we get into horse racing? It will be something that brings us together and could lead to potentially some very fun experiences and times down the road,’” Higgins recalled.

“Did I think we’d ever be in the situation we are now? Absolutely not. I couldn’t have even dreamt this up.”

They started with two $90,000 yearling purchases, Impossible Task and Tell Me I’m Pretty, and the early experiences hardly pointed to future wealth.

“Tell Me I’m Pretty didn’t pan out well for us,” Higgins said. “She either didn’t love to run or couldn’t run very fast.”

But Impossible Task made the group a small profit, which they used to buy into Hot Rod Charlie, who could give Doug O’Neill his third Derby victory after I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016.

“It was with those funds that we kinda took one last shot with the horse racing gig,” Higgins said.

Dennis O’Neill, Doug’s brother and bloodstock agent, told the Boat Racing members he had a great yearling prospect.

“Dennis asked us, ‘Do you guys want to fire your last bullet here?’” Higgins recalled. “It was perfect timing. We put all of our trust into Dennis and Doug. It’s been pretty unbelievable since he broke his maiden at Santa Anita last year.”

Hot Rod Charlie’s ownership group also is composed of Roadrunner Racing, which owns 50% of the colt and is headed by Greg Helm, and Bill Strauss, who owns the other 25%.

Trainer Doug O’Neill, left, and Bill Strauss, co-owner of Kentucky Derby hopeful Hot Rod Charlie, talk outside their barn after a workout at Churchill Downs Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

As Higgins said, “It’s been so much fun and just a wild ride, especially the last six months.”

The son of Oxbow, whom the boys from Boat Racing have nicknamed “Chuck,” finished second at 94-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November at Keeneland and then won the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans on March 20.

“When he finished second in that race (Breeders’ Cup), it was like, ‘Wow’” Higgins said. “Those were the best 2-year-olds in the U.S. at that time and we came in second. I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t thinking about May back in November of last year.

“But (the Derby) really became a reality and not a dream on Louisiana Derby day, when he went wire to wire and just gave us an amazing thrill and quite a celebration.”

Higgins tries not to think about what it would feel like to win the Kentucky Derby, but sometimes he can’t help himself.

When you’ve experienced a low like eating ice cream in the back of a Del Mar concession stand, the highlights are too delicious to let pass by.

“Every time my mind kind of starts to go that way, I just shut myself down,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Reiley, dude, don’t even go there.’ If it happens, it will be like an out-of-body experience.

Former college teammates, from left, Eric Armagost, Alex Quoyeser, Reiley Higgins, Patrick O’Neill and Dan Giovacchini wait to watch Kentucky Derby entrant Hot Rod Charlie work out at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“But no matter if we hit the wire first or run dead last, we’re going to have an amazing time and share it with 150, 160 of our closest family members and friends. It’s just going to be an awesome time, no matter what.”

Even more awesome than those beer-chugging contests.


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