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

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

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.”

Churchill Downs moves meet to Ellis Park to examine protocols following 12 horse deaths

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Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/USA TODAY NETWORK

Churchill Downs will suspend racing on Wednesday and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in order to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of safety and surface protocols in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

No single factor has been identified as a potential cause for the fatalities or pattern detected, according to a release, but the decision was made to relocate the meet “in an abundance of caution.”

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in Friday’s release. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7 and run through Aug. 27 but will now expand with Friday’s announcement.

Ellis Park will resume racing on June 10.

The move comes a day after track superintendent Dennis Moore conducted a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ racing and training surfaces as part of an emergency summit called this week by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) with the track and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Meetings took place in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the Louisville track.

The head of the federally created oversight agency suggested ahead of the summit that it could recommend pausing the meet and that Churchill Downs would accept that recommendation.

Churchill Downs’ release stated that expert testing raised no concerns and concluded that the surface was consistent with the track’s prior measurements. Even so, it chose to relocate “in alignment” with HISA’s recommendation to suspend the meet to allow more time for additional investigation.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement. “We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”

Carstanjen insisted that relocating the remainder of the spring meet to Ellis Park would maintain the industry ecosystem with minor disruption. He also said he was grateful to Kentucky horsemen for their support as they work to find answers.

Rick Hiles, the president of Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, questioned the move, especially since there’s no conclusive evidence that Churchill Downs’ surface is the problem.

“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said in a statement. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns.

“Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

The latest development comes a day after Churchill Downs and HISA each implemented safety and performance standards to address the spate of deaths.

HISA will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. Its Integrity and Welfare Unit also will collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.

Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers. The track is also pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and limiting purse payouts to the top five finishers instead of every finisher.

Forte works out, waits for Belmont Stakes clearance

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NEW YORK — Forte, the early Kentucky Derby favorite who was scratched on the day of the race, worked out in preparation for a possible start in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte worked five-eighths of a mile for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. It was the colt’s second workout since being scratched from the Derby on May 6.

“It seems like he’s maintained his fitness level,” Pletcher said. “It seems like everything is in good order.”

Forte was placed on a mandatory 14-day veterinary list after being scratched from the Derby because of a bruised right front foot. In order to be removed from the list, the colt had to work in front of a state veterinarian and give a blood sample afterward, the results of which take five days.

“There’s protocols in place and we had to adhere to those and we’re happy that everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “We felt confident the horse was in good order or we wouldn’t have been out there twice in the last six days, but you still want to make sure everything went smoothly and we’re happy everything did go well.”

Pletcher said Kingsbarns, who finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, will miss the Belmont. The colt is showing signs of colic, although he is fine, the trainer said.

Another Pletcher-trained horse, Prove Worthy, is under consideration for the Belmont. He also has Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, being pointed toward the Belmont.