By Ed McNamara
It was a late autumn afternoon at Turfway Park, a minor-league outpost in northern Kentucky, near the Ohio border. Not much that happens there is memorable, yet for Brad Cox it provided an unforgettable moment.
At 24, after a five-year apprenticeship under trainers Burk Kessinger, Jim Baker and Dallas Stewart, Cox had just gone out on his own. His second starter was a 3-year-old filly with a 2-for-15 record, and he was thrilled when the $30,000 claimer rallied wide to get up by a neck. The winner’s share of $7,800 was worth only $780 to Cox, but it felt like he’d hit the Lotto.
“December 4, 2004,” he said. “One Lucky Storm. That was exciting.”
As far as beginnings go, it couldn’t have been much humbler. Everybody has to start somewhere, but few go as far as Cox, who in 16 years has become one of the country’s elite horsemen. He won seven Breeders’ Cup races and two Kentucky Oaks in the past three years, and he has his first Derby winter-book favorite, undefeated Essential Quality.
“It’s a great position to be in with a colt who acts like he can get a mile and a quarter,” Cox said. “This is why you get up every day to do this, to get to the Kentucky Derby.”
Cox lives and breathes racing, so there was never a question about his motivation. Along the way, he discovered he had the knack of bringing out the best in thoroughbreds.
He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South Louisville, a few blocks from Churchill Downs. His father, Jerry, was a $2 bettor who’d been hanging out there for years, so it was inevitable that Cox would be introduced early (“at 5 or 6”) to thoroughbreds. Like most kids, he loved racetrack outings with Dad, but young Brad’s reaction to the scene was unique. For him, it would have to be more than just fun, and early on Cox thought of becoming a trainer. And not just any trainer.
Around age 11 he told his father he wanted to be the next D. Wayne Lukas.
If you’re going to dream, take it to the limit. This was back in the early Nineties, when The Coach was the undisputed king of American racing and Churchill was one of his many power bases. On trips to the backstretch with a friend whose father was a trainer, young Brad saw Lukas’ barn and hoped that someday he’d have one like it. He does, and just like the 85-year-old Hall of Famer, he displays his initials — B.H.C.– in old English text on a placard on its outside wall. Cox also has multiple divisions around the country and, as a tribute to Lukas, runs them in white bridles.
“I knew at a very early age I wanted to be in the business,” Cox said. “I was a hotwalker. Believe me, I started at the bottom.”
As a teenager Cox filled notebooks with claiming horses’ times, looking for patterns. He studied the past performances and devoured the stories in the Racing Form, and he never threw one away. He always wanted to learn more.
“I’m a huge fan of racing, and I’ve kept up with it since I’ve been a kid,” he told Sirius Radio host Steve Byk. “Some big races, I can remember exactly where I was when I was watching them.”
Wanting to emulate an all-time great is a common fantasy. Very few have the exceptional talent and relentless work ethic to make it happen. Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher also had Lukas as a role model, and Cox is the next link in that platinum chain. Lukas and Baffert are in the Hall of Fame, Pletcher will be, and it’s Cox’s ultimate goal.
“When you start in this business, there’s a lot of things you want to accomplish,” Cox said. “The three biggest ones are winning the Kentucky Derby, Eclipse Awards and the Hall of Fame. And to get to the Hall of Fame, you need Eclipse Awards.”
He already has four — Monomoy Girl (2018, 3-year-old filly); Covfefe (2019, 3-year-old filly and 3-year-old female sprinter) and British Idiom (2019, 2-year-old filly). Monomoy Girl and Essential Quality will give him two more, and unbeaten Juvenile Fillies Turf champion Aunt Pearl could make it three.
Unlike Lukas and Baffert, neither of whom excels on the turf, Cox has no hole in his game. He dominates with 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older horses, going short and long, on dirt and grass, from 5 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, off layoffs, off claims and first time out.
NBC commentator Nick Luck called Cox’s record-tying four victories at Keeneland on Breeders’ Cup weekend “a fantastic, phenomenal achievement.” They punctuated a career year that included Shedaresthedevil’s Oaks upset at the track where it all began for Cox. Last year, for the first time, he was a finalist for the trainer’s Eclipse. It went for the fourth straight time to Chad Brown, and the modest Cox again is a contender to end Brown’s streak.
“It was fantastic to be nominated last year, and hopefully it will lead to the Eclipse Award at some point,” Cox said. “I don’t want to say too much about that. To win one would be surreal. It would be an amazing accomplishment in life, and we’ll see what happens.”
We’ll find out Jan. 28, when the honored humans and horses of 2020 are announced. Cox’s main competition is Baffert, who trained the lock for Horse of the Year, Authentic, hero of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Baffert had 16 Grade 1 wins to Cox’s seven, and they’re virtually even with nearly $19 million in earnings. Others in the mix are Brown, the leader with 32 graded-stakes victories (12 Grade 1s) and Steve Asmussen, first in wins (420) and money ($20,179, 201). (Equibase stats through Dec. 28).
Like Lukas, Cox is a workaholic. Arriving at the barn by 4 a.m. is a D. Wayne trademark, and Cox loves the backstretch life, too. If you find what you do to be endlessly fascinating, it’s not a job. Cox enjoys “grinding every day,” although it doesn’t feel like a grind.
“I’m a very driven person. I think to be real successful at this, you’ve got to be somewhat obsessed,” he told podcast host Ron Flatter. “Even when I take a few days off during the summer and at Christmastime, I’m still putting in a couple of hours a day on the phone. You’re never completely away from it. It becomes your life.”
He couldn’t imagine a better one.
“I tell everyone we have to keep focused,” he said. “I’m the coordinator, the head coach, the general manager. I have to make sure everything is in place and everybody is doing what they need to do. You just have to stay after it.
“They’re such long days that when it’s time to lay your head down, it’s pretty easy to go to bed.”
It’s a good tired, especially when your stable star is 13-for-15 lifetime, including trophies from the Oaks and two Breeders’ Cup Distaffs. Cox didn’t win his first graded stakes until 2015. Monomoy Girl put him on the national map in 2018 with four personal firsts — Grade 1 win (Ashland), classic (Oaks), Breeders’ Cup victory and Eclipse Award. If Cox gets the trainer’s Eclipse, his brilliant work with Monomoy Girl will be a big reason why.
“She’s played a large role in a lot of people’s careers, including mine,” Cox said. “We owe her a lot.”
After being 6-for-7 at 3, she sat out 2019 because of a case of colic in April and a pulled gluteus muscle in September. There was talk of retiring her, but co-owners Michael Dubb, Sol Kumin and Stuart Grant decided against it. She overcame a year-and-a-half layoff to go 4-for-4, capped by her second Distaff.
Monomoy Girl was sold for $9.5 million in November to Spendthrift Farm, which will keep her in training with Cox. “She’s definitely capable of another big year,” he told Flatter. “For her to be 5 and not having raced at 4, I think there’s still plenty of tread on the tires.”
The Bayakoa Stakes on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park is her first target.
“Brad Cox has really been the key to Monomoy Girl,” Grant said. “He’s been the master, knowing just when to push, knowing when to step back, managing her care. She’s so extraordinary, a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Two wins in the Breeders’ Cup, and she did it with an 18-month gap in between. It’s just unbelievable.
“She’s obviously an incredibly important part of his career, so we’re really happy to be a part of his rise.”
Expect that to continue in 2021 with the 3-for-3 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero Essential Quality. Dubai-based Godolphin bred and owns the son of top sire Tapit, giving Cox a connection with an international superpower that could send him more regally bred stock.
“This colt’s three races: first three-quarters, then on the lead going a mile and a sixteenth, then coming from out of it going a mile and a sixteenth, it just shows his versatility and how much talent he has,” Cox said.
“We’ll talk it over with the Godolphin team and come up with a plan. I do feel the sky’s the limit for this colt.”
He could say the same about himself.