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.”

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.