Knicks Go captures the Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs on Oct. 2, 2021. Churchill Downs/Coady Photography.

Knicks Go Makes it Look Easy in Lukas Classic

By Alicia Hughes

Mystery, thy name is not Knicks Go.

There is no secret as to what the son of Paynter will do once the starting gate flies open, no wondering what kind of game plan his connections will come up to contend with any would-be challengers. Like that athlete on the court who tells their opponents exactly what play they’re going to run, then drains a shot unopposed anyway, the 5-year-old gray horse lets everyone know his speed is his weapon and, more often than not, still leaves them flailing.

It is a strategy that has carried Knicks Go to victory in all but two starts since joining the barn of trainer Brad Cox in early 2020.  It is one he flaunted during his easy triumph in the $400,000 Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs on Oct. 2, and one that figures to earn him the largest of targets on his back when the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at held at Del Mar in early November.

What looked to be a solid tightener for Knicks Go on paper materialized as such Saturday as the multiple Grade 1 winner executed his customary move of leading every point of call en route to a four-length victory in the 1 1/8-miles Lukas Classic, his final prep race ahead of an expected run in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 6. 

Knicks Go’s win in the Aug. 7 Whitney Stakes (G1) made him the pro-tem leader of the handicap ranks and having a two-turn prep race right in his backyard five weeks out from the Breeders’ Cup gave his team the advantage of being able to keep sharp while not having to ship before his California venture. While his four career Grade 1 victories gave him a massive class edge over his five rivals on Saturday, there was still the pressure of having to deliver as the 1-9 betting favorite at a track which where he was previously 0-for-4. 

As has been his go-to strategy, the No.1 horse on the Breeders’ Cup Classic Rankings got to the front in the Lukas Classic and put the cruise control on for the remainder of the test. After facing mild pressure from Sprawl approaching the first turn, Knicks Go got into his rhythm while cutting fractions of :23.53 and :47.27 under jockey Joel Rosario before kicking on in the stretch despite bearing out slightly to earn his ninth career win.

“That’s exactly what we were looking for,” said Cox, who later won the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes with Plainsman. “I think there was a little bit of concern in that he had never won here at Churchill but you know, he put it all together today. He always seems to be a well in hand and Joel fits him extremely well and knows exactly what to do on him. He looked like he had plenty left. 

“We got exactly what we were looking for a as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Just as his running style is no secret, Knicks Go’s raw ability has been on display since his early days. He won the 2018 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) for previous trainer Ben Colebrook in his fourth career start and was second to champion Game Winner in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

That Breeders’ Cup outing would be the start of a 10-race losing skid for Knicks Go, however, as he went off form and even tried the turf unsuccessfully. Since making his first start for Cox in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park in Feb. 2020, Knicks Go has won seven of his last nine outings including victories in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and 2021 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1).

His only losses during that span came when he was fourth in both the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) and Metropolitan Handicap (G1), efforts that told Cox in no uncertain terms that his charge needed two turns to show his best self.

“He’s definitely beatable, we saw that in the Saudi Cup. But when he gets around two turns, he’s able to just clear off and put them away in the far turn and just kick home,” Cox said. “We didn’t know what we had when we took over with this horse. He’s really turned a corner and we just let him do his thing. He likes training, he likes to work, and we let him do it. We let him run.

“Don’t take away anything that comes easy to them.”

Rosario has been aboard Knicks Go for each of his last eight starts and Saturday’s Lukas Classic run only enhanced his belief that his mount will have enough in that tank to get the 10-furlongs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I mean he always tries really hard all of the time, this horse,” Rosario said. “He’s a very talented horse. He always goes easy and just keeps going. He’s amazing the way he does it.”

Independence Hall, who tracked Knicks Go for most of Saturday’s race, held for second in the Lukas Classic by 1 ½-lengths over Shared Sense, who edged graded stakes winner Tacitus by a head for show honors. 

The final time for the 1 1/8-miles was 1:47.85 over a track rated fast.

Owned by Korea Racing Authority and bred in Maryland by Angie Moore, Knicks Go improved his record to nine wins from 23 starts with a bankroll of $5,553,135. Though he has not started over the Del Mar surface before, Cox feels the Breeders’ Cup host track will become the latest venue to play to his protégé’s strength.

“There is the still the unknown with him at 1 ¼-miles but I like the 1 ¼-miles at Del Mar,” Cox said. “I think the speed is deadly at a 1 1/8 miles and beyond. If he doesn’t stub his toe at Del Mar, he’ll be tough.”

Plainsman Shines in Ack Ack

Shortleaf Stable’s Plainsman rallied from off the pace, grabbed the lead with a furlong to run and out-kicked 1-2 favorite Beau Liam to the wire to win Saturday’s 29th renewal of the $300,000 Ack Ack (G3) at Churchill Downs by one length. 

Plainsman, a 6-year-old son of Flatter, ran one mile on a fast track in 1:33.85, which was just .07 off Pants On Fire’s 2013 stakes record (1:33.78) and .59 off Fruit Ludt’s 2014 track record (1:33.26). 

Joel Rosario rode the winner for trainer Brad Cox, who swept the Saturday stakes at Churchill Downs. Two races earlier, Knicks Go won the Lukas Classic.

For Rosario it was his fifth win on the day, which marked the 72nd time a jockey has accomplished that feat and the first since Florent Geroux won five races from nine mounts on Sept. 4, 2020. Rosario’s nine mounts earned a hefty $603,170 on the day.

Atoka led the field of nine older horses down the backstretch in the one-turn mile through fractions of :22.65, :45.21 and 1:09.15 with Plainsman sitting off the pace and in clear.

Leaving the turn after a three-wide move, Plainsman was in fifth behind the leaders and ducked inside to split Mr Dumas on the rail and Atoka on his outside. He grabbed the lead with an eighth of a mile to run and turned back favored Beau Liam, who made his stakes debut after winning his first three starts.

“I was able to sit a good trip for most of the race,” Rosario said. “I knew turning for home I’d have a decision to make whether to keep him inside or go out. I knew I had a lot of horse underneath me and the race developed well for him.”

The first prize was $178,800 and hiked Plainsman’s bankroll to $729,207 with a record of 8-6-3 from 25 starts. It was his fourth career stakes win. Previously he won the 2018 Discovery (G3) at age 3 and prevailed in the $50,000 Jim Rasmussen at Prairie Meadows and $85,000 Michael G. Schaefer Memorial at Indiana Grand earlier this year.

“This horse has been in great form this year,” Cox said. “I think two-turns is probably his best distance but today he was able to sit a good trip from off the pace at the one-turn mile. He showed a lot of adversity today and ran a good effort.”

TVG Horse racing insider news
TVG Horse racing insider news