DEL MAR, Calif. – The son of Paynter arrived in Brad Cox’s barn with a ten-race losing streak hanging like cloud over his gray frame, his best form seemingly left behind somewhere in the dustbin of his juvenile season. He couldn’t win a minor stakes at Ellis Park. A turf experiment had failed miserably. He was a Grade 1 winner seemingly turned also-ran, and it was Cox’s challenge to see if he could resurrect what would be left of Knicks Go’s career.
He started back easy enough with a couple confidence-boosting allowance wins that sandwiched a minor injury. He was impressive enough that his connections opted to give him a shot in a Breeders’ Cup race last year to see how if the front-running speed that had been so promising during his early days could still knock rivals off their feet at the highest level. The answer ended up being a definitive yes and with that, Knicks Go began a wild transformation – from precocious talent to fallen star to the horse that arrived at the 2021 $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar as the consensus pick as the one his challengers would have to go through if they wanted to reach the winner’s circle.
Midway through the 10-furlong Classic, the answer started becoming clear and by the top the stretch, it wasn’t a query any longer. The horse who was written off, who couldn’t win a stakes anymore, much less a Grade 1, had officially morphed into the undisputed king of the North American handicap ranks.
This is why you don’t give up on your horses, because they can shock you in the best of ways even when conventional wisdom has written them off. Two years after his career was on the brink of being remembered as a one-hit wonder, Knicks Go capped off a campaign that is all but certain to earn Horse of the Year honors when he was barely challenged while leading every point of call to take to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic by 2 ¾-lengths over Medina Spirit on Nov. 6.
To fully appreciate how far Knicks Go has come since joining the Cox barn for the start of 2020, one needs to reflect on how far down the totem pole he had fallen. Originally trained by Ben Colebrook, the gray horse signaled his quality early on when he captured the 2018 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in his fourth career start and went on to finish second to eventual divisional champion Game Winner in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
From there, the wheels started coming off on his form. An eleventh-place finish in the 2018 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) would mark the second loss in what would become a 10-race losing skid, one that saw Knicks Go finish off the board in six more tries in graded stakes. When he came to Cox, the Louisville native admitted he didn’t know what he was getting from owner Korea Racing Authority.
What he has turned Knicks Go into is a two-turn monster who dares his counterparts to try and stay with him on the front end and is able to get break his competitors’ will with the way he gets separation around the bends.
“I mean, he’s been very good since we picked him up,” said Cox, who celebrated his eighth Breeders’ Cup win overall and first win in the Classic. “In fairness to Ben, Ben did a very good job with this horse. He won a Grade 1 with him, he was second in the Breeders’ Cup, he took very good care of this horse. I can’t really say a whole lot but when I took over the horse, I thought I’m going to pick the races and I’m going to give him the time he needs between races and he’s going to tell us when he’s ready to run. And he’s responded really well.
“He was a Grade 1 winner at 2, 4, 5. He’s traveled around the world and he’s a very tough, durable horse. He’s extremely sound. And I think we’re in a day and age where horses go to stud so early and he’s a little bit of a throwback horse in that he’s raced at 4 and 5 and raced as much as he has. So very proud of what he has accomplished this year and ending last year and hopefully he’ll pass it on as a stallion.”
His gate-to-wire triumph in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) proved to be a shot across the bow of what the older male division would be in store for this year from Knicks Go. After opening his 5-year-old campaign with a victory in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) in January, however, he ran into a bit of kryptonite – specifically one-turn races – when he finished fourth in both the Saudi Cup (G1) and Metropolitan Handicap (G1).
Those outings convinced Cox that it would be two-turns or bust for Knicks Go going forward with the July 2 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3) serving as a glorified workout in preparation for his sublime triumph the next month in the 1 1/8-miles Whitney Handicap (G1) at Saratoga, following by another handy win in the Grade 3 Lukas Classic on Oct. 2.
“Honestly the Cornhusker was just to get his confidence back after a lot of quiet racing in Saudi,” Cox said. “We thought maybe we take a shot at this Grade 1 at Belmont (the Met Mile), but it didn’t work out. Both races were in one turn, the Saudi race and the Met Mile were on one turn. We figured, let’s run him on the track like Prairie Meadows where it’s a speed favoring track, mile and an eighth. We had some success up there with some other horses in the past and thought it would be a good opportunity to find out where we were with him.
“He ran an incredible race. I don’t want to say a soft race, but say a Grade 3 for a prep for a Grade 1. The he wins the Whitney, we come back in the Lukas Classic (at Churchill), the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It all worked out.”
Dominant as he had been when in his wheelhouse, there were still questions Knicks Go had to answer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – namely if his speed could hold up over 10 furlongs and if any of the ample pace on paper would rise up to challenge him once the gates sprung open.
The most likely to contender who figured to press Knicks Go on the lead was Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Medina Spirit, who finished first in the American classic in front-running style and was coming off his own gate-to-wire win in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita on Oct. 2. As Knicks Go jumped up into his usual spot on the lead out of post four on Saturday, jockey Joel Rosario was pleasantly surprised to see no company with him as he cut fractions of :23.16 and :45.77.
“He’s very fast and then he got to the front like he always do,” Rosario said. “He broke very, very sharp, and then I just told him, like Brad told me, just let him do his thing and then he was just speeding, speeding. The faster he was going, he was feeling faster.
“And I know when they were far away from me, I know how fast he is. So I kind of get to, you know, to ride him for the way he was.”
On the far turn, Art Collector – who had been tracking second behind Knicks Go down the backstretch – backed out of the picture as Medina Spirit tried to mount a rally to the outside as Hot Rod Charlie cut the corner on the inside. The threats were short-lived as Knicks Go scampered clear, covering the distance in a final time of 1:59.57 over a track rated fast.
“(Jockey) John (Velazquez) said (Medina Spirit) broke just a step slow, so he couldn’t be laying a little bit closer,” said Bob Baffert, trainer of Medina Spirit. “I’m very proud of him. He ran a great race. The winner was just too much. I’m proud of the fact that he showed today that he beat those 3-year-olds. To me, he’s the best 3-year-old. He showed it today. That’s what racing is all about, proving it on the racetrack. And he proved it today that he’s the real deal.”
Game as Medina Spirit was, it is Knicks Go’s stablemate, champion Essential Quality, who will most likely earn the hardware for champion 3-year-old male. The winner of the Belmont (G1) and Travers Stakes (G1) rallied to finish third to his barnmate, beaten just three-quarters of a length for place honors in what was his final career start before heading off to stud for owner/breeder Godolphin.
“He had a big year and I’m hoping it’s worthy of a 3-year-old championship at this point,” Cox said of Essential Quality. “I’m hopeful he can add that to his list of accomplishments. I thought he ran big. When Knicks Go cleared off and when I saw the other horse well bunched, I thought they’re not really going that quick and…. at that point and I thought (Essential Quality) was going to have a hard time catching the big group. But he stayed on and he finished up well.
“I gave him a big pat on him his head and I’m going to go back and give him a bunch of mints tonight. He’s been good to me. He was my really my first big colt, being a champion 2-year-old last year. He means a lot.”
Knicks Go himself is slated to enter stud in 2022 for Taylor Made Farm, but Cox previously mentioned that another start in the Pegasus Invitational could be on the table before he joins the breeding shed.
If Saturday was how it ends for the gray horse, with him earning his tenth win from 24 starts and boosting his earnings to $8,673,135, it is a fantastical type finish that at one point rarely seemed possible.
“I’m extremely pleased with the result today. It had been a rough time when he was 3-years-old, but we overcame the hard year and then turned the corner and then he became a special horse,” said Jin Woo Lee of Korea Racing Authority. “Winning the Breeders’ Cup was the ultimate goal at the beginning of the year and we achieved that win, so he can go off feeling good.”