At the start of the 2018 season, Brad Cox had never won a Grade 1 race.
At the conclusion of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar, the reigning Eclipse Award winning trainer was celebrating after extending his streak to four straight years with at least one win in the two-day event along the impending glory that will likely be his first trainee to earn Horse of the Year hardware.
Korea Racing Authority’s Knicks Go all but cemented year-end honors for himself when he capped off his remarkable season with a 2 ¾-length victory in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
The Classic marked the third Grade 1 win this season for Knicks Go and made him just the sixth horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races as he captured the 2020 Dirt Mile (G1). Others to achieve said feat include Golden Pal, winner of the 2020 Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) and Saturday’s Turf Sprint (G1); Zenyatta, 2008 Distaff (G1) and 2009 Classic; Beholder, 2012 Juvenile Fillies (G1) and 2013 and 2016 Distaff; Stephanie’s Kitten, 2011 Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) and 2015 Filly & Mare Turf (G1), Secret Circle, 2011 Juvenile Sprint (G1) and 2013 Sprint (G1).
Knicks Go captured the Classic in his trademark gate-to-wire fashion, cutting fractions of :23.16 and :45.77 while largely unchallenged on the front end.
“You know, not a whole lot because he wasn’t being pressed,” Cox said when asked if he was nervous when he saw the half-mile time of :45. “He’d kind of cleared off at that point, and established maybe a two-length lead, so I felt comfortable about that. It’s one thing being pressed. It’s one thing going fast and being pressed, but it’s different when you’re going fast and you’re kind of doing it by yourself.
“The opening quarter was on a straightaway, so I felt like it was relatively reasonable. I was almost thinking he wasn’t going fast enough. Then I think (jockey) Joel (Rosario), may have let him out a notch around the turn because like I said, he always runs around turns really well. I felt like he was in pretty good position.”
Cox, who won a record-tying four races at the 2020 Breeders’ Cup, came into this year’s Classic with the top two contenders in Knicks Go and his stablemate, reigning juvenile champion Essential Quality, who finished third as the betting favorite.
“Both horses had been doing extremely well. Obviously, I do think the race, as it unfolded, played to Knicks Go’s advantage, just the way the way it unfolded into the first turn,” Cox said. “And, up the backside, I felt pretty confident that he would have enough to finish with. Obviously, the 1 ¼-miles is not an issue. I’ve never really thought it would be just based on his mile and an eighth performances this year. Just a huge performance.”
“Essential Quality, I thought he ran huge. I kind of thought we were in a little bit of a tough spot just with the fact that you know there was Knicks Go obviously, then everyone else was battling for position up the backside. The next group of horses were well bunched and we had some very good horses in front of us and he was able to pass several of them. He ran extremely well.”
Knicks Go is slated to enter stud at Taylor Made Farm for 2022 but could make at least one more start in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) Jan. 29 at Gulfstream Park. While the 5-year-old son of Paynter all but assured himself champion older dirt male and Horse of the Year honors, there may be some debate as to who takes home champion 3-year-old male honors between Classic runner-up Medina Spirit, winner of the Kentucky Derby (G1), and Essential Quality, who won five graded stakes in 2021 including the Belmont (G1) and Travers Stakes (G1).
The Classic also marked the final start of Essential Quality’s career as he retires to Darley’s American-based stallion roster and will stand for an advertised fee of $75,000.
“I think he deserves to be champion 3-year-old,” Cox said of Essential Quality. “He has two big Grade 1s, two very prestigious wins in the Belmont and Travers. He was able to have a campaign all year. It started in the Southwest, he ran a big one in the Blue Grass. The (Kentucky) Derby, obviously didn’t work out quite the way we would have liked, but he was able to follow it up with a spectacular summer at Saratoga. And, then to come in here and I really think he performed very well.
“I thought about this this morning when I woke up. ‘Is there anything I could have done different with him to prepare for this?’ I wouldn’t have prepared him any different.”
While Knicks Go and Essential Quality remained in California Sunday morning, their multiple Grade 1-winning stablemate Shedaresthedevil was already en route to Kentucky after her sixth-place finish in the Longines Distaff (G1). She is scheduled to be sold Tuesday night at the Fasig-Tipton November sale.
“I thought she was in a fantastic spot at the half-mile mark,” Cox said. “I thought we looked like a winner, although the fractions were incredibly hot. It was hard to believe that any of those horses could keep going with those fractions. I thought she ran a good race. I guess you could say she ran the best race of the speed horses. She was the one that faltered the least amount. I do feel like she was really ready to run.
“We’re excited about going to the sale with her. It’s a possibility, you know, someone could purchase her and she could return to racing. She has no issues and is a very sound filly. We’ll see how it plays out on Tuesday for her.”
On Friday, Juju’s Map finished second in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) and will now set her sights on the Kentucky Oaks (G1) next May.
“We’re excited about her,” Cox said. “We’ll take her to the Fair Grounds and run in either the Fair Grounds or Oaklawn series for 3-year-old fillies. We’ll probably run where (Juvenile Fillies winner) Echo Zulu doesn’t. But, a huge congratulations to her team. They did a fantastic job.”