Starr’s Mill alum ready for Kentucky Derby spotlight

Kentucky Derby hopeful Hot Rod Charlie waits to get a bath after a workout at Churchill Downs Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Kentucky Derby hopeful Hot Rod Charlie waits to get a bath after a workout at Churchill Downs Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Eric Armagost had a small connection to the Kentucky Derby.

The connection is greater than ever now as a part-owner of Hot Rod Charlie, who will run in the Triple Crown race on Saturday.

Armagost, a former football player at Starr’s Mill High and Brown University, and a group of Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers were looking for their next bonding opportunity. Something beyond fantasy football, ski vacations and international trips, including one to Pamplona, Spain, to run with the bulls, following college graduation in 2015.

So the five friends — Armagost, Patrick O’Neill, Dan Giovaccini, Reiley Higgins and Alex Quoyeser — turned to horse racing.

Now they’re on the cusp of the Kentucky Derby. Hot Rod Charlie, a three-year old colt partially owned by the former Brown teammates, is among the early favorites in the prestigous Kentucky Derby.

“This is just another thing that we do that happened to turn into this massive (deal),” Armagost said. “It’s nothing that any of us had initially thought about it in that way of like, ‘Hey, let’s go invest in horses and try to go to the Kentucky Derby.’ It was more like, ‘Hey, here’s another fun thing we could do together.’”

Hot Rod Charlie drew the No. 9 post position on Tuesday in the 20-horse field.

Armagost played football for Starr’s Mill in Fayetteville. The Associated Press named the defensive back to the 2010 Class AAAA All-State team. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution included him as an honorable mention. Starr’s Mill team advanced to the state championship that year, extending Armagost’s exposure to college programs. He talked to a few Ivy League schools, ultimately choosing Brown for its academics and football program.

“I had the chance to go to Providence, Rhode Island, from Peachtree City, Georgia, which was a heck of a transition as you’d imagine,” Armagost said. “But I can’t imagine having played out any differently.”

He bought some Timberlands and a big coat to combat the cold. O’Neill, a native of Honolulu, arrived even more unprepared. His suitcase contained little more than flip flops and board shorts.

During his time at Brown, O’Neill watched thoroughbred races. His friends found it odd until they learned he is the nephew of Doug and Dennis O’Neill. Doug is a trainer known for leading I’ll Have Another and Nyquist to Kentucky Derby wins in 2012 and 2016. Dennis is a keen talent evaluator who bought I’ll Have Another, for a mere $35,000, who won the Derby and the Preakness.

O’Neill regaled his friends with tales of the sport. They didn’t have a passing interest. Armagost, whose mother owned a horse growing up, said he doesn’t remember watching I’ll Have Another’s win with O’Neill when they were freshmen. He heard all about it later.

Horse racing was exclusively O’Neill’s interest, but most of his friends were eager to get involved despite the financial reality. According to a Thoroughbred Times magazine survey from 2005, only 17% of racehorses earned $25,000, the average annual cost of boarding and training the animal.

Money aside, the friends wanted to do something together. They set up Boat Racing LLC in 2018. It refers to a drinking game, reminding them of their roots.

“We thought we were pretty hilarious in (naming us) that,” Armagost said.

Boat Racing LLC purchased two horses: Tell Me I’m Pretty and Impossible Task. Both were relative busts. Then Dennis O’Neill bought Hot Rod Charlie for a cool $110,000. The five friends own equal parts of Boat Racing’s 25% share in the horse, Armagost said. Bill Strauss of Strauss Brothers Racing owns another 25% and Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing owns 50%.

Hot Rod Charlie’s path to Churchill Downs began with the November Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in Lexington, Kentucky. He received an invitation out of “unique circumstances,” Armagost said. The horse’s owners paid the race entry fee but didn’t expect much. At post time, Hot Rod Charlie’s odds were 94-1. He finished second. Then he finished third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in California and first in the Louisiana Derby.

While Boat Racing LLC wasn’t exactly the biggest underdog — O’Neill’s connection with two of the sport’s most prominent names is no small thing — they do represent something of a novelty. Where else in horse racing can you find owners in their mid-20s celebrating race wins as if they were on the football field, ramming a shoulder into a buddy’s chest?

The former Brown teammates hope the old guard can find room for them. Armagost, an investment professional for a private equity firm in California, said Boat Racing LLC will continue investing in horses and trying to grow its following on Instagram.

On Saturday, Armagost will be at Churchill Downs surrounded by his closest family and friends. Win or lose, the group will be doing exactly what they wanted to do: spending time together.