For Patrick O’Neill ’15, horse racing has always been “the family business.”
His uncle Doug O'Neill is a world-renowned thoroughbred racehorse trainer who runs Team O’Neill Racing and trained 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another. Another uncle Dennis O’Neill is a well-known bloodstock agent, which is the horse racing equivalent of a scout. Patrick’s late grandfather, whom he is named after, was a regular at a Detroit track called Detroit Race Course. He “loved to gamble on the ponies,” Patrick said, though often to the family’s detriment.
“Horse racing has run through my blood from the time I was born,” Patrick said.
While Patrick’s father, who was the eldest son, became “very, very turned off by” horseracing after seeing the effects of his grandfather’s gambling, the two youngest sons Doug and Dennis — who had little idea of the financial impacts of their grandfather’s gambling — could not have reacted more differently.
“Horse racing was this majestic sport,” Patrick said. “The animals are beautiful, the people are such characters and they fell in love with the sport at an early age.”
Their love of horse racing never waned, and from a young age they tried to stay connected to the sport in any way they could. “Doug started literally picking up poop from a horse stall and walking horses in circles hundreds of times a day,” Patrick said. Now, they are both professionals at the top of their craft. “(Dennis) picks out the horses that (Doug) trains, so they're kind of like a duo.”
Patrick himself was always drawn toward the sport, eventually forming Boat Racing LLC with four other men: Alex Quoyeser ’15, Reiley Higgins ’15, Eric Armagost ’15 and Dan Giovacchini ’15 — his teammates on the Brown football team, for which he played defensive back.
The friends have used Boat Racing to stay connected in their years after leaving College Hill, and at the start of this month, they saw their first major victory with their horse Hot Rod Charlie, who won third place at the Kentucky Derby.
“Honestly the best part of it all was being able to share it with so many of my best friends and family,” Higgins said. “It was almost like all five of us were getting married.”
The origins of Boat Racing LLC: from football stadium to racetrack
“For me, horse racing was like a quirky obsession,” Patrick joked. His first spring at Brown in 2012 was the same year Doug’s horse won the Kentucky Derby, with Patrick in attendance.
Higgins recalled seeing Patrick on TV and thinking to himself, “Oh my God, this is a very real thing for him.”
The group of five spent almost all of their time at Brown together and grew incredibly close, making parting at graduation incredibly difficult. “When you walk out of the Van Wickle Gates, that exposure (to each other) goes from like 95 percent to practically 0 percent overnight, which is a really sad realization,” Quoyeser said.
The group started to search for ways to keep connected, which eventually brought them to horse racing. “We said to each other that we need to find ways to keep this idea of brotherhood intact, and so it started with a couple of weekend trips,” Patrick O’Neill said. “It happened to be on one of those trips that we went to Del Mar Racetrack in San Diego, and those guys instantly fell in love with horse racing for all the reasons that Doug and Dennis fell in love with (the sport).”
“We got kind of the VIP treatment being associated with Pat and Team O'Neill in general and it was really just a lot of fun to be there,” Quoyeser said. “For us being former football players and former athletes the competitiveness really intoxicated us. We gravitated toward the beauty of these horses and these trainers, these jockeys, the people who are in the barn grooming the animals and cleaning up their poop and feeding them and (who) work for weeks and weeks for two minutes of running to put forth their best effort.”
That was when “one of the crazier guys in our group was like, ‘Why don't we use horse racing as an avenue to solidify our bonds and (as) an excuse to spend more time together,’” Patrick said. “I was the first one to say, ‘No, I'm not gonna ruin my relationship with my best friends over horse racing,’ because it financially is not a great idea. But we came to an agreement that we're going to do it for all the right reasons, and that's how Boat Racing LLC began.”
The money needed was cause for concern, but money wasn’t the group’s ultimate aim. “We realized this isn't the most sound financial investment, but if you can chalk it up to an entertainment expense you can pretty easily rationalize it,” Quoyeser said.
While the members of the group each have their own full-time jobs outside of horse racing, Boat Racing LLC is still an important part of their daily lives. “We joke that it's our nighttime job,” Patrick O’Neill said. “It was a business we put together to focus on people, each other, memories and experiences and that's what our focus is here: something that we're passionate about that gives us the ability to communicate more frequently.”
Making it to the Kentucky Derby
Boat Racing LLC found limited success with their first two horses, Tell Me I’m Pretty and Impossible Task. Tell Me I’m Pretty didn’t want to race and was “a bit below average," while Impossible Task was “very, very average,” according to Higgins. But “those two horses still gave us everything we wanted when we first got into it,” he said. “We were still having the time of our lives through it all.”
After Impossible Task was purchased, the group had a decision to make: whether to cut their losses or try again one more time.
Quoyeser was among the most hesitant. “I was the last holdout,” he said. “I was like, ‘let's lick our wounds … It's been a fun ride.’” Ultimately, though, he came around. “These four guys, my brothers, my best friends, were like, ‘We're going to do this and we're not going to do it without you,’” he said. On the recommendation of Dennis O’Neill, the group purchased the horse they would later name Hot Rod Charlie from a baby sale.
Hot Rod Charlie’s career got off to a slow start, but he gradually improved in his racing performance. “He ran horribly in his first three races,” Patrick O’Neill said, “and then he matured, just like we all do, when he got out of a puberty phase. As he's grown up, he's just gotten better and better.”
In the fall of 2020, Hot Rod Charlie’s career began to take off. He won his first maiden race and was invited to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. “We had to cut a check just to show up to run,” Quoyeser said.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is “the toughest competition for all two-year-old male horses and is essentially an inside look into what will be the rising crop for the Kentucky Derby next year,'' according to Higgins. Horses that run in the Triple Crown races are always three-years-old.
Hot Rod Charlie entered the race with odds of 94:1, meaning that oddsmakers thought he had just over a 1 percent chance of winning the race. He ended up taking second place.
“I'm getting chills just thinking about that race,” Higgins said.
After his impressive Breeders’ Cup Juvenile showing, focus began to shift toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
“There are points attached to prep races or races prior to the Triple Crown, and (to qualify) you need to have enough points or be within the top 20 and if you run well you get more points,” O’Neill explained. Hot Rod Charlie won the Louisiana Derby, earning him enough points to get into the field for the Kentucky Derby. From a full crop of 20,000 horses born in 2018, Hot Rod Charlie became one of 20 to qualify.
On May 1, Hot Rod Charlie took third place in the Kentucky Derby. While they had always been hopeful, Patrick O’Neill said the group never could have predicted such success. “We knew we had a chance and we were optimistic, but it's the Kentucky freaking Derby,” he said. “It's the pinnacle of horse racing at the pantheon of the sport at Churchill Downs, so you never never expect to get into the race, let alone run third in the Kentucky Derby.”
But the race results are still in flux following a positive drug test from first-place winner Medina Spirit, trained by the world-famous Bob Baffert. If Medina Spirit returns another positive test for the steroid betamethasone, he would be disqualified, and Hot Rod Charlie would be moved up to second place. But for the group, a second-place finish under these circumstances would feel somewhat hollow. “That's definitely not the way in which we wanted to run second,” Patrick O’Neill said. “I don't think Charlie wanted to finish second in that way. If he had a voice he'd certainly say that.”
Hot Rod Charlie did not race in the Preakness Stakes, which was run Saturday. Given the rapid turnaround from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness, Team O’Neill Racing, Boat Racing LLC, and the other owners decided to rest him and make sure he is ready for the June 5 Belmont Stakes, the third and final Triple Crown race.
“My metaphor would be, (running on two weeks’ rest) is like playing a football game on a Saturday and then playing another football game on Monday,” Patrick O’Neill said. “We're gonna take five weeks, skip the Preakness and try to win the Belmont.”
Hot Rod Charlie is currently trained in Southern California by Doug O’Neill, Patrick’s uncle. “We put all the faith in him and his organization, Team O'Neill racing,” Patrick O’Neill said. Hot Rod Charlie is “a supreme athlete, and anything that a supreme athlete would get he gets. (It’s) pretty crazy because he's a horse (that) gets treated like he's LeBron James.”
Despite Hot Rod Charlie’s status as a “supreme athlete,” the group still tries to bond with him and treats him as an animal, rather than as an investment. “He's like a pet, but like a super pet,” Higgins said. “You have so much (more) invested emotionally than financially.”
Hot Rod Charlie is currently owned by three separate investors: Boat Racing LLC, which owns 25 percent, Bill Strauss, who owns another 25 percent, and Roadrunner Racing, which owns the remaining 50 percent.
The racehorse has his own unique personality, according to Quoyeser. “Charlie is kind of a goofball. He liked to play around a lot, especially when he was younger,” he said. “He got really distracted during a workout once when he saw a squirrel. He was supposed to be sprinting but he wanted to go play with the squirrel and stopped doing his workout.”
For Patrick O’Neill, treating a horse well is important not only from a competitive perspective, but from a humane one above all else. “We're going to take it day by day, we're going to make sure that he's healthy, we're going to make sure that he's loved on, he has carrots, he has grain, and I think that's the only way to healthily be horse owners,” he said. “We love on him just like if he were our dog. He just happens to be a very, very, very fast version of a dog.”
Still, Patrick O’Neill and the other members of the group don’t claim credit for Hot Rod Charlie’s success. “We're just so blessed to be in the position we're in,” he said. “We didn't do much; we just bought a racehorse and he ended up being very, very fast.”
For this reason, the group has decided to use their position for good. “We know how fortunate we are and given this newfound platform that we have, we felt as a group that it was important to commit to something that was bigger than us,” he said. The group will donate a sixth of their winnings moving forward to the Melanoma Research Alliance, a cause close to home for Patrick O’Neill. “My dad and my uncle passed away from melanoma at the young ages of 57 and 38, respectively,” he said.
After the Belmont Stakes, Boat Racing LLC has its sights set on racing Hot Rod Charlie in the Breeders’ Cup Championship this fall, which Higgins described as “the world championships of horse racing.”
After that race, the group is considering races in places like Dubai and Saudi Arabia. “Some of the most lucrative, profitable races in the world happen when horses are three years old, four years old, five years old,” Quoyeser said. Hot Rod Charlie “will continue running as long as he’s healthy and as long as (he’s) competitive, and then beyond that there's a whole second life to these horses.”
Beyond Hot Rod Charlie, Boat Racing LLC has two other horses, both of which the group purchased in April 2021. Though their future onward is unclear, one thing seems likely: according to Higgins, “Boat Racing is here to stay.”
Peter Swope is the senior editor of digital engagement for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. He previously served as a Sports section editor and has also written stories for University News. Peter is a junior from New Jersey studying history.