Finding Strength in the Final Furlong: Jake Panus, Hot Rod Charlie, and the Belmont Stakes
“Hot Rod Charlie ran a great race,” stated Stephen Panus, head of America’s Best Racing, president of Jockey Club Media Ventures, and a USC alumnus (Class of 1991). “He had a tough first turn and had to break a little bit, but he still rallied. You know a lot of horses don’t rally after something like that. He showed his grit, his fighting Gamecock spirit.” If thoroughbred Hot Rod Charlie dug deep to finish third in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Panus has also had to call upon his Gamecock grit to withstand the unfathomable tragedy of the sudden death of his son, Jake Panus. Jake was sixteen years old and making plans to follow in his father’s footsteps to attend the University of South Carolina when he was killed in a car accident.
“Jake had just taken his first SAT practice test a month before the accident and crushed it. Absolutely crushed it. I joked and said with a score like that maybe South Carolina should be your back-up school, but Jake was so intent of getting to South Carolina and he loved Gamecock football. He was raised on it because I love it,” Stephen explained.
Jake’s dream of attending the University of South Carolina, as his father Stephen did, turned into a nightmare for those who love him and who are searching for a way to make Jake’s college goals a reality in an alternative way through founding the Jake Panus Walk-On Football Endowed Scholarship. The first scholarship recipient will be named during the 2021-22 academic year and keep Jake’s Gamecock dream alive. “We wanted something that was really going to take Jake to South Carolina in spirit just like he intended to do in person. Jake was just the brightest light in any room, he was always smiling. People gravitated towards him,” said Stephen, his voice breaking. “The beauty of both these scholarships established in Jake’s name (Gamecock Walk-on Football Endowed Scholarship and the Jake Panus Memorial Scholarship Benefitting the Children from Red Shirt Table in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where Jake volunteered) is that he’ll continue to shine upon others.”
While many donate to Gamecock Athletics, specifically defining the scholarship to honor an individual is rare in college football. “It has extra meaning because of who it stands for and what it means,” said the University of South Carolina head football coach Shane Beamer. “Walk-ons are the underdogs and Jake identified with underdogs,” said Stephen wistfully, the pride in his son palpable. “They’re gritty and they’re tough. They are willing to hustle and put the work in to show that they belong and deserve an opportunity. And, most of all, they care deeply for their teammates and university. They will carry that legacy of Jake forward in being awarded the scholarship in his name. Often these players come from smaller schools, they are unrecruited diamonds in the rough that need to be polished and provided an opportunity. That’s what Jake was about, helping others and caring for others in every aspect of his life. And so that’s why we chose the walk-on. It’s just who Jake was as a person.”
Stephen is grateful for the support of several people as he and his family struggle to navigate their lives following the tragedy. Two of these people are famous horse trainer Doug O’Neill, who trained Hot Rod Charlie, and Ivan Maisel, a Hall-of-Fame sportswriter who had lost a son of his own, Max, five years ago. Maisel called University of South Carolina football coach Shane Beamer to tell him about Jake’s death, and Beamer called the Panus family in early December. “He was just a compassionate, supportive human being. He talked to Jake’s younger brother Liam on Facetime. He was just so friendly and welcoming and supportive, and it meant the world to us at a time when we just wanted to get past the holidays,” remembers Stephen.
Doug O’Neill is a gifted horse trainer whom Stephen knew because of his involvement in the racing world. “Doug’s a very affable, fun loving, very chill California guy. He’s very positive. I think we connected over positivity and hope. And Doug has a seventeen-year-old son. I think this hit home,” Stephen said. “Doug was in contact the minute he learned of what had happened. I kept him up to date when we decided on the South Carolina Walk-On Scholarship, and he reached out and said maybe there’s something we can do. I was like ‘oh my God, you’re kidding me.’ Doug said that we should plan something for the Kentucky Derby and I couldn’t believe it.”
O’Neill suggested that the Gamecock logo appear on Hot Rod Charlie’s blanket so that Jake would be present at the Kentucky Derby as well as to generate awareness about the new scholarship. The Gamecock logo appeared on one side of the blanket, and an image of a bear, meant to replicate a pendant Jake wore that symbolized his volunteer experience on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, appeared on the other side. O’Neill used the platform of the most iconic race in the United States and arguably in the world to support the Panus family. This year, 15.7 million people watched the derby, making it the most-watched event on NBC since the NFL playoffs in January.
“To have South Carolina represented in the derby was pretty neat, but when you realize the meaning behind it and what it stood for it make it even more special to watch,” said Coach Beamer.
In this sense, Hot Rod Charlie was running with much more than a jockey on his back in this year’s Kentucky Derby. The joint efforts of O’Neill and the Panus family, as well as one of the group owners of the horse, Boat Racing LLC, exemplify the philanthropic tradition of horse racing and its connections to broader issues within society. Hot Rod Charlie embodied Jake’s grit, as one of only twenty-three-year-old colts who qualified to run in the derby. He also called attention to the new scholarships established in Jake’s name. In addition, Boat Racing LLC, partial owners of the horse, donated a sixth of their race earnings to the Melanoma Research Alliance.
The presence of the University of South Carolina mascot on Hot Rod Charlie’s blanket drew attention. “I saw the Gamecock logo on Hot Rod Charlie’s blanket at the derby and I said now what is that all about? And then I began to read up and it really hit home,” said Kerry Tharp, who worked in the Sports Information Office at the University of South Carolina from 1985 to 2005. Tharp trained and got to know Stephen when he was a work-study student at Carolina. Today, Tharp is the president of the NASCAR racetrack in Darlington, SC. “What happened to Stephen’s family was a tragedy,” said Tharp. “I’ve got two sons of my own, they’re older, and three grandsons, so I can’t imagine the pain Stephen and his wife have endured. And what they’ve done to honor his legacy, it was really amazing reading that during the time of the derby. I was devastated to hear about the loss of his son and yet very proud of what they’re doing to keep his legacy alive. In fact, I made sure I bet on that horse!”
While many readers understand the Panus family’s link to the University of South Carolina, few recognize that horse racing is also central to the Panus family, to Stephen’s profession, and racing was something Stephen and Jake both enjoyed very much. The connection to horse racing illuminates the successful career of Stephen from USC alumnus to founder of the platform America’s Best Racing.
Stephen is an exemplary product of the humanities as a student at the College of Arts and Sciences who majored in government and international studies. He remembers several professors who had a large impact on his education in the Political Science and History Departments, including the late Don Fowler. “He was a fantastic professor, a legend,” recalls Stephen. “His class was huge, I don’t know, 300-500 students, but it was so entertaining, I loved it. I loved my four years at USC. I had a great great experience in Columbia.”
One of the ways Stephen made the most out of his time at USC was through getting involved in activities beyond his discipline that complemented his studies. He knew he wanted to work for the athletic department, and he had real interest in sports business. Following the example of his older brother, who had worked for the Sports Information Office at Cornell University, Stephen walked over and presented himself to Tom Price and Kerry Tharp at the Sports Information Office, and he quickly was given the work study experience of his dreams. “I feel like I really got a double major working for Kerry and Tom,” said Stephen. “I went to every game and essentially got paid to go, which I couldn’t believe.”
Tharp said that when Stephen came to work at the Sports Information Office he knew the young man would be successful. “He was a student of whatever sport he was involved with. He got to know the coaches, he got to know the student athletes. He was always, for his age, buttoned up and very professional,” said Tharp. “Having Stephen in the office was almost like having another full-time person working, he was that good and he had a real passion for it.”
Stephen never lacked hustle. Between his junior and senior year, he returned to his home state of New York and convinced New York City-based sports publicist Joe Goldstein to hire him. “He subsequently offered me a job when I graduated and I took it,” said Stephen. “Joey was the ultimate mentor, he taught me so much. We had clients like ESPN, Madison Square Garden, Dick Schaap, Howard Cosell, Dick Vitale, big-time clients and great events with huge exposure. I then went to law school at Loyola-New Orleans and while in school I launched my own company, Team Pro Associates, and I started representing athletes as their agent. But it’s a tough business, you know. I was a small guy and coming in second place doesn’t pay.” Stephen returned to practice law for a while, until he got a call out of the blue from Andre Agassi. He worked for Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf for four years. He also represented Hélio Castroneves, the Brazilian car racer. Stephen took Jake to see Castroneves race in the Indy 500. “I was following my passion: sports public relations, marketing, branding,” said Stephen. “Then in 2011 some horseracing representatives reached out to me; they were looking for someone to help tell their stories. There are multitudes of great stories in the sport, and I took the job.”
Stephen began working with the National Thoroughbred Association and later with the Jockey Club to found the platform America’s Best Racing, designed to recruit new audiences to the world of horse racing. “No matter your background, your interest level, horse racing is a sport for you. When I bring newcomers to the racetrack, ten out of ten times their eyeballs blow up and they say, ‘I didn’t know it was like this!'” Stephen capitalizes on what the new recruits gravitate to at the racetrack. Whether it’s getting them close to the horse or just feeling the adrenaline rush of having even a two-dollar bet and feeling the horse come down the stretch or having the hair on the back of your neck stand up as the horses come down the stretch, it’s just contagious, it’s infectious.”
Jake shared his father’s passion for horse racing, attending his first race at the age of nine. “Jake was about being with people. The more the merrier. A racetrack offered him everything that he wanted, which was lots of people and a social experience, you know, a communal social experience where you met with friends. He loved the Preakness Race (the second leg of the Triple Crown Races), he went to it three times.” Stephen recounted how the family would drive down from Connecticut to Maryland for the Preakness, and the family trip aspect was important to Jake. “Jake had great access with me, obviously. He had a media credential and Jake roamed a lot on his own. He was always mature beyond his years, so I let him venture out. Jake loved the special guests at the race, the music, the racing.”
Jake was proud of his father, and he delighted in sharing the racing experience with him. Stephen’s voice wavered as he remembered the race Jake never got to in person. “Jake wanted to go to the Breeders’ Cup Races with me in 2012, it was going to be held at Santa Anita Racetrack in California. But Hurricane Sandy hit and we lost power for a week. We both missed the Breeders’ Cup that year. I always planned on taking him to one. He reminded me every year the Breeders’ Cup came around that I owed him one….”
O’Neill, aware that Jake always wanted to attend the Breeders’ Cup, has already contacted Stephen about doing something to honor his son during this year’s races that will be held at the Del Mar Racetrack in California. “Doug always said the world needed a lot more Jakes,” said Stephen.
The scholarship will take Jake to USC in spirit and support a deserving walk-on player. The grittiness and Gamecock spirit that Jake possessed as a person will be mirrored in the deserving student-athlete recipient. While the future is a difficult and daunting concept for the Panus family at present, Stephen does look forward to what the scholarship will produce. “You know, it’s going to be amazing to see a kid come down on special teams and make a tackle or even better score a touchdown one day because he busted his ass and was a tough team-first guy,” said Stephen, who plans to attend a football game in person to feel Jake’s memory alive on the field at William Brice Stadium.
“Sports is an outlet for people to show their emotions, it’s an outlet to socialize and have a great time, and sometimes it’s an outlet for people to express sad moments,” reflected Tharp. “Outside of my family it’s my biggest outlet. And after a tragedy like Stephen and his family have endured sports can often be a rallying point. I think the support Stephen and his family are receiving from Hot Rod Charlie and his ownership is a wonderful thing.”
“We want them to know that we are with them and support them, they’re constantly in our prayers and they have been in mine since I first got connected with the Panus family,” said Coach Beamer. On football Saturdays and throughout the year we can give the family some joy watching us play and sharing in the success that we have.”
Tharp was preparing for the last leg of the Triple-Crown races, the Belmont Stakes, held June 5th in New York. “I’ll be placing a bet on Hot Rod Charlie again,” said Tharp, “in support of Stephen and in memory of Jake.” And Hot Rod Charlie carried Jake’s legacy forward at the race through his emblematic blanket. As the thoroughbred dug deep to finish a strong second in the longest and last race of the Triple-Crown races, he may well have felt Jake’s spirit give him the needed extra strength in the final furlong.
The Jake Panus Scholarship Fund is now active and receiving donations. Please click here to donate.