Hot Rod Charlie being run in Belmont in memory of Jake Panus

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK (AP) Jake Panus wanted to help Native American children and walk on to play football at South Carolina.

His death in August in a car crash stopped all that at age 16.

After his father, Stephen, fought through the first wave of grief, good friend and trainer Doug O’Neill called to offer any help he could for the family. Turns out it came in the form of 3-year-old colt Hot Rod Charlie, co-owned by nephew Patrick and now running in the Belmont Stakes in memory of Jake Panus.

“There aren’t really proper words to describe the gratitude that we have for Doug and Patrick, their selflessness in allowing my family and Jake’s story to kind of become part of Hot Rod Charlie’s journey on the Triple Crown this year,” Stephen Panus said Thursday. “It’s remarkable.”

O’Neill, himself with a son around Jake’s age, couldn’t believe what Panus was going through and the willingness to spearhead this cause through the pain.

“He’s done it in a brave way because I’d be in a fetal position and not wanting to come out,” O’Neill said.

Neither Doug nor Patrick O’Neill ever met Jake Panus but heard all about him from Stephen, a horse racing executive with The Jockey Club and America’s Best Racing. They learned even more about him over the past few months, while Hot Rod Charlie was winning the Louisiana Derby and went into the Kentucky Derby as a top contender.

“Everyone around him was just drawn to him in a way that has that almost natural leadership,” Patrick O’Neill said. “That guy whenever he enters the room, it’s smiles, it’s laughs and he just has this aura to him. Talking to Stephen or talking to some of the people that run this foundation – it sounds like that’s kind of who Jake was.”

Hot Rod Charlie’s saddlecloth bears Jake’s initials and symbols of his life and goals, and his Triple Crown season is dedicated to raising awareness for scholarships in Jake’s name. One such symbol is a pendant Jake wore around his neck of a bear, which represents courage, confidence, healing and protection among some Native American tribes, and the other is the South Carolina Gamecocks logo to symbolize his desire to follow his father in playing football there.

Memorial scholarships were set up to help Oglala Sioux students from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota go to college and pay for a South Carolina walk-on football player who earns a scholarship. Over $100,000 has been raised for the Jake Panus Walk-on Football Endowed Scholarship since just before the Kentucky Derby, in which Hot Rod Charlie finished third.

“Him wanting to walk on to South Carolina’s football team: How do you not root for that?” Doug O’Neill said. “I just think it’s a great way to keep Jake alive with us and I hope to be a small part of it for a long time to come.”

The Belmont is the next step in that. Hot Rod Charlie – known as “Chuck” to Patrick O’Neill and his Boat Racing LLC co-owners – already brought 250 people together at the Kentucky Derby, and a victory in the third leg of the Triple Crown would only shine a brighter light on Jake Panus and his story.

“It would be emotional,” Doug O’Neill said. “It’s heartbreaking. He was such a courageous kid, such a caring kid. I’m a very small part of trying to get the word out there to keep the legend of Jake Panus alive.”

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

bob baffert
Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”