Brad Cox, the reigning Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer, put on quite a show for Saratoga’s racing faithful this past summer. And boy did we need it. With Saratoga Race Course’s spectator-less 2020 season firmly in the rearview, the fans were jonesing for a comeback meet to remember. Cox won 13 races at The Spa, including the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes, with his champion Thoroughbred Essential Quality, and reined in the Whitney Handicap with his Knicks Go for good measure. Those victories in the Travers and Whitney made Cox only the eighth trainer in Saratoga history to win both races in the same summer, and one of just three—and the first since Hall of Famer John Gaver, Sr. in 1942—to accomplish the feat with different horses. In the end, Cox finished in the top 10 of the Saratoga standings and did so despite sending out only 47 starters, significantly fewer than any of the trainers ahead of him on the leaderboard. He won a whopping 28 percent of his Saratoga starts, a higher percentage than the likes of leading trainer Chad Brown and Hall of Famers Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher.
In other words, Cox’s heroics paid for a lot of post-race drinks in Downtown Saratoga.
“It truly has been a spectacular summer,” Cox told me on the meet’s final weekend. “We came here confident in our horses, but Saratoga is elite competition and can be very humbling. Nothing is a given here. To be able to win races like the Travers, Jim Dandy and Whitney is what you dream of doing in this sport.”
But Cox’s sensational Saratoga summer is a mere drop in the bucket for the 41-year-old trainer, who’s been a horse racing obsessive for his entire life. Case in point: At just 12, Cox was spending significantly more time reading the Daily Racing Form than his school books. One day, he confidently told his father that he was going to become the next D. Wayne Lukas. (Talk about aspirations of grandeur!) “I knew what I wanted to do with my life pretty early on,” says Cox. “I had no doubt about the direction I wanted to go in, and I trusted in myself. I really didn’t give much thought to doing anything other than horse racing.” Growing up on Evelyn Avenue in Louisville, KY, just two blocks away from Churchill Downs and its iconic twin spires, Cox was so thoroughly captivated by racehorses as a kid that he designed a cardboard track in his parents’ living room. A year after his bold prediction, Cox lied about his age so he could become a hot walker and gain full access to the grounds at Churchill. Cox meandered through his formal education and graduated from high school, but his most impactful studies unquestionably took place at the racetrack. Those lessons have paid off for Cox—big time.
But fame didn’t come easy. Take a peek at his career stats on Equibase, and you’ll see a steep learning curve in the numbers. After serving as an assistant to Dallas Stewart, Cox went out on his own at the age of 24 in 2004. He earned his first victory that December, with One Lucky Storm at Turfway Park in Kentucky, and began to slowly make a name for himself through the claiming ranks. The upstart trainer had yet to win a graded stakes race when, in 2012, client Midwest Thoroughbreds decided to take the 30 or so horses it had in Cox’s barn and place them with another trainer. With only a few horses remaining in his care, Cox was forced back to square one and had to rebuild his operation essentially from scratch. “There’s, no doubt, going to be adversity in this sport,” says Cox. “What matters is how you respond to it. Persevere, have faith, and never stop working…that’s how you get through difficult times.”
Press on is exactly what Cox did, rebuilding his stable and earning his first graded stakes win in 2014, when Carve won the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows in Iowa. Four years later, Cox arrived on the national racing scene when Monomoy Girl became his first Grade 1 winner in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Less than a month later, Cox and Monomoy Girl were in the winner’s circle at his hometown track, Churchill Downs, victorious in the Kentucky Oaks. He was on top of the world at the place where he first dreamed of racing glory. The horse who got him there was a special one. An eventual winner of two Breeders’ Cup Distaffs and a pair of Eclipses, Monomoy Girl definitely helped put Cox on the map.
Speaking of the Breeders’ Cup, the late-season series is what ultimately landed Cox top trainer honors himself. During 2020’s pandemic-twisted season, Cox won 216 races, with career-best purse earnings of $18.9 million. A good chunk of that purse money came from wins in Breeders’ Cup races at Keeneland with Aunt Pearl (Juvenile Fillies Turf), Essential Quality (Juvenile), Knicks Go (Dirt Mile) and Monomoy Girl (Distaff). With that impressive Breeders’ Cup performance, Cox joined Hall of Famer Richard Mandella as the only trainers to win four Breeders’ Cup races in a single year. “You never go into the Breeders’ Cup thinking something like that is going to happen,” Cox says of the four wins. “But taken individually, each of those horses fit as strong contenders, and they showed up when it mattered most.” He adds: “It’s almost an indescribable feeling to put in the amount of work that goes into it all and then have them realize that potential on such a stage. It’s very rewarding to say the least.”
An encore to an Eclipse-winning year is never easy, but Cox has arguably been even more successful in 2021. At press time, he already had 230 wins and easily surpassed his personal record with $29.2 million–plus in earnings. His per-start earnings of $33,636 also represented a career best at press time. Cox had plenty of ammunition going into this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in California, led by a showdown of his stable stars Essential Quality and Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “As a trainer you’d just about always prefer a different scenario than competing against the horses in your own barn, but those two have earned their way into that opportunity,” Cox says. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Were Cox to lock in a second straight top trainer award this year, he’d likely also end up seeing his two top Thoroughbreds duke it out for Horse of the Year. Both Essential Quality, who gave Cox his first victory in a Triple Crown race in the 2021 Belmont Stakes, and Knicks Go, a five-time graded stakes winner, were in the conversation for the Eclipse ahead of the Breeders’ Cup, and Knicks Go’s victory in the Classic will in all likelihood secure the Eclipse for the horse. “I wouldn’t trade what I’ve got in the barn with anyone right now,” Cox says.
Cox doesn’t shy away from the high expectations that have accompanied his success. “I’m doing the one thing in life I’ve always wanted to do, and I expect a lot of myself and the people on my team,” he says. “I didn’t set out with the idea of just getting by in this business. Why not try to make your way to the top? You only get one life, and I want to do the absolute best with mine that I can. It’s hard work 24/7, 365 [days a year], but the satisfaction is well worth it when your horses are running well. This sport is pure magic when everything comes together. That’s what we chase every day.”
Not to get too, too far ahead of ourselves, Cox has certainly made a case for a Hall of Fame bid someday, if he keeps up his winning ways. At least one of his horses will beat him to the punch. Monomoy Girl, who ended her career 14-3-0, with 10 graded stakes wins and earnings of more than $4.7 million, will become eligible for the Hall in 2027—two years before he will. “I hope I can follow Monomoy Girl into the Hall,” Cox says. “That’s the highest honor you can get, and it reflects hard work, sacrifice, teamwork and having the fortune of some darn good horses to train. D. Wayne Lukas, Todd Pletcher…those are my heroes. That’s the path I want to be on and hopefully, I’ll be on it for a long time.”