Trainer Brad Cox. Coady Photography.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Cox Continues to Raise the Bar on His Level of Success

By Alicia Hughes

Something had to give. 

Between the Eclipse Awards, the Breeders’ Cup trophies, the classic wins, the future Hall of Famers in the shedrow, the world’s elite as clients and the endless amount of focus it takes to make it all manifest, Brad Cox had to let something go. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision – not for the kid who grew up within sightlines of the most famous racetrack in horse racing and whose most treasured learning tomes were editions of the Daily Racing Form. But when you’re traveling at warp speed while constantly trying to keep 100 different balls in the air, there is legitimate concern that taking a moment to admire your own handiwork could result in having it all come crashing down.

“I used to collect all my win pictures. I don’t do that anymore. It’s kind of gotten away from me,” Cox said during one of his rare pauses in activity outside his Churchill Downs barn. “I’m sure one day I’ll look back and think, I wish I would have. Maybe when I retire someday, I can go back and collect them all but…yeah.

“There was a moment a couple of weeks ago where I thought man, we’ve had a fantastic year and a fantastic summer…but horse racing is tough because you have to keep going. It’s almost like when you win a big race, you enjoy the evening. But the next day, it’s right back to work and you’re preparing for the next spot.”

And it is work, the business of training Thoroughbred racehorses. Demanding, unforgiving, faith-testing work where losing 80 percent of the time means you’re better than most who make said profession their vocation. It’s also the only thing Cox ever imagined as a career path for himself when he was sneaking onto the backstretch in his youth and lying about his age to walk hots. For better or worse, he was going to put his fate in the hands of brilliant but fragile equine athletes, ready to accept there were going to be more days he’d rather forget than ones he would relish.

Except Cox’s steel-trap mind doesn’t really forget anything, which is why taking time to reflect on what has transpired for his barn the last four years is something that often goes by the wayside. His status as the one of the leading conditioners in the game was cemented a year ago when he saddled a record-tying four winners during the two-day international spectacle that is the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. It was a showcase that backstopped him to his first Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding trainer and with it came the happy challenge of wondering how the heck he was going to top that.

Here is his response to said task: Cox not only has the expected favorite for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), but he has the top two contenders for the 10-furlong test in multiple Grade 1 winner Knicks Go and Godolphin homebred champion Essential Quality. And if either of the gray runners were to prevail over the Del Mar oval on Nov. 6 and give their trainer his first victory in the race, they would also likely become the first from his barn to earn Horse of the Year honors.

Add to that the fact Cox is already in the midst of another milestone season, having shattered his previous best single-season mark for earnings while picking up his first career win in a Triple Crown race when Essential Quality captured the Belmont Stakes (G1). In all, he is set to lead over as many as seven Breeders’ Cup contenders this year, including multiple Grade 1 winner Shedaresthedevil for the Longines Distaff (G1) and a potential freak in the making in Juvenile Filles (G1) contender Juju’s Map.

So, if he doesn’t stop and breathe and take more than a hot second to take it all in, it’s not for lack of appreciation. When a childhood dream becomes a better-than-you imagined reality, getting out of the moment is the last thing one wants to do.

“I don’t think a whole lot about what we’ve done. I mean, there are a lot of things we would like to do,” said Cox, who has won seven Breeders’ Cup races total in his career. “Even if the race is 6-7 weeks off or two months off, you’re evaluating your horse, you’re making plans, you’re just watching them and trying to come up with the best way to get them there. I think staying focused and mind on task and looking after these horses…it takes a very competitive person to be successful week in and week out in this game and you have to stay on task. And it’s not just these good horses that we have. We have a lot of other horses coming up, young horses that we’re trying to get to the graded stakes level.

“But I enjoy it. There is nothing like competing at the Grade 1 level.”

Trainer Brad Cox, center, celebrates after Essential Quality captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 6, 2020 at Keeneland. Bill Denver/Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

As one watches the parade of top runners that now routinely swagger out from the Cox shedrow, it can be easy to forget only four years have passed since the 41-year-old Louisville native first tasted top-level success. 

Before she was a two-time Eclipse Award champion and virtual lock for eventual Hall of Fame induction, the recently retired Monomoy Girl became Cox’s first Grade 1 hero and Breeders’ Cup winner when she took the 2018 Ashland Stakes (G1) and Distaff, respectively. That soup to nuts development of the daughter of Tapizar did more than just bolster Cox’s profile, it opened the door for some of the top outfits in the industry to come banging on his. 

His barn is now filled with stock from the likes of global powerhouses Godolphin and Juddmonte, making it seem like a lifetime ago that his operation was left in tatters after Midwest Thoroughbreds pulled their runners from him in 2012. Increased opportunity is only valuable when capitalized on, however, and the last few years have seen Cox flex all manners of his skillset.

Turf. Dirt. Juveniles. Older horses. Classic runners. Sprinters. No matter what wheelhouse his charges settle into, Cox has proven he can get them to the upper echelon of their division. 

“Brad is very focused. Horses, horses, horses is all he thinks about,” Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA, said of Cox earlier this year. “I’m not sure he doesn’t have a photographic memory. He’s always very well prepared and very knowledgeable and he knows how to place his horses. He is completely absorbed with it.”

It is fitting in that sense that his two leading Breeders’ Cup contenders this year each showcase the diverse ways Cox can bring talent to the forefront. Because while they bear the same coloring and shoulder the same burden heading into Saturday, that’s where the similarities between Essential Quality and Knicks Go end.

Different Shades of Gray

He already had a Grade 1 win and admirable Breeders’ Cup performance on his resume. Beyond what was on paper, though, Cox says he didn’t know what to expect from Knicks Go when the son of Paynter was transferred from Ben Colebrook to his shedrow for the start of 2020.

While the gray colt had flashed talent in winning the 2018 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and subsequently finishing second in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he had also gone off form and dropped ten straight races by the time he came into Cox’s care. Since capturing his first start for his new conditioner when he took an allowance optional claiming test at Oaklawn Park in Feb. 2020, Knicks Go has added six more triumphs during a career revival as one of the top handicap horses in the country.

Knicks Go wins the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 7. 2021. NYRA photo.

After capping off his 2020 campaign with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), Knicks Go has continued to dare rivals to try keep up with his frontrunning ways during a 5-year-old season that has seen him win four of six starts. His two losses this year, fourth place efforts in the Saudi Cup (G1) and Metropolitan Handicap (G1), both came around one turn but he has been untouchable when he is able to get the separation he relishes during two-turn tests – as evidenced by his triumphs in this year’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) and Whitney Stakes (G1).

“I think that (Cox) figured out quickly what kind of talent he has (with Knicks Go) and how he can show that talent and maximize that talent in a race,” said Jun Park, racing manager of the Korea Racing Authority, which owns Knicks Go. “That’s the key to make him even better as a racehorse. I would say as a 3-year-old, it was a completely different situation because of (trying to make) the Kentucky Derby. We gave him time off and he probably appreciated it. Then he got a new start with Brad.”

If there an intangible Cox points to as a key factor behind Knicks Go’s turnaround, it’s that he and his team let the good-feeling runner be just that. Knicks Go regularly gallops in draw reins to try and harness his energy during training hours but when it comes time for serious work, Cox lets the four-time Grade 1 winner lean into his best weapon.

“We don’t really train him any different than we do any of our other horses. But he’s able to take more training,” Cox said. “He’s able to breathe faster and work faster because he’s a better horse than most all of our other horses or most of our horses. We do let him gallop along. And we do let him breathe, I mean… he has huge gallop-out so we put a lot of air into him. And we allow him to really stretch his legs and do what he likes doing. He loves to train.”

Where Knicks Go tested Cox’s ability to put a puzzle back together, Essential Quality has highlighted his conditioner’s eye for spotting early talent and being able to keep improving upon up inherent gifts.

Unlike his fellow gunmetal-colored stablemate, Essential Quality isn’t one to show his hand in the morning hours or blow rivals away with flash and dash. Laid-back in manner, the son of Tapit nonetheless had Cox telling the Godolphin team early on they had a potential classic winner on their hands as he impressed his trainer with the indefatigable way he went about his on-track business. 

His workmanlike ways have been enough to outmuscle nearly every rival he has faced with his fourth-place run in this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) being his only loss in nine career starts. Since winning the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last season en route to earning the Eclipse Award for divisional honors, Essential Quality has become the quintessential example of a horse who knows where the wire is – outfighting Hot Rod Charlie in a memorable stretch duel to take the final leg of the Triple Crown and most recently, getting his neck in front of a brave Midnight Bourbon to prevail in the Aug. 28 Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. 

“He’s an interesting horse. He’s extremely smart and he does just what he has to do,” said jockey Florent Geroux, who was on Essential Quality in his workouts leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. “He comes back and he’s not even blowing. That’s why he is so good at what he does because he always has something left for the next one. Looking at the clock you may think ‘Oh it looks a little bit slow’ or like he’s being outworked. But that’s just what he does.”

Champion Essential Quality after his victory in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 28, 2021. NYRA/Janet Garaguso Photo.

Where Knicks Go has yet to try the Classic’s 1 ¼-miles distance, Essential Quality is arguably at his best going 10 furlongs and beyond. And should he prove superior once more on Saturday, he would become the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to come back and win the Classic. 

“I wish there were two different races for them but both of them, I would assume, would be the first and second choices and deserve the opportunity at the richest race run in America,” Cox said of Knicks Go and Essential Quality. “We’re in a great position but it’s going to be odd watching the race to be honest. I’m obviously going to be glued into what Knicks Go is doing early and have to pick up Essential Quality at some point going into the first turn. 

“The opening half mile will probably have a lot to do with what will happen with Knicks Go. We’re going to send him out of there and be very, very aggressive with him. That’s just the way he is. Speed is his strength and we’re going to use it. And Essential… there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll be coming down the lane.”

Last Hurrahs

One emotional benefit of being singularly focused on trying to get his horses to peak for Breeders’ Cup is Cox doesn’t have much time to think about the fact he will likely be saying goodbye to each of his Classic boys after Saturday. 

Both Knicks Go and Essential Quality are slated to enter stud for 2022, with the former heading to Taylor Made Stallions and the latter to Darley’s Jonabell Farm. For Knicks Go, there is a chance he could attempt to defend his title in the Pegasus World Cup in January before heading to the breeding shed. For Essential Quality, however, Saturday will mark his final competitive outing.

“I’m obviously very proud of what they’ve accomplished and excited about them going off to stud and hopefully will get to train some of their offspring,” Cox said. “I’m happy (Grade 1 winner) Mandaloun is coming back. He can fill the void and hopefully he can pick up where some of these nice colts and stallions are leaving off.”

As always, Cox is looking ahead because that is the necessity of both his sport and his success. It’s a whirlwind he thrives in as he doesn’t ever want the day to come when he is comfortable with standing still and admiring his level achievements.

Not when there are still so many potential win photos that could one day be added to stack.

“It’s demanding. It’s thrilling. It’s fun,” Cox said. “I enjoy it but it is a lot of work and I don’t really think too much about what we have accomplished as opposed to moving forward and trying to do bigger and better things.”