Ambition With a Healthy Dose of Aspiration: Why Brad Cox Wins …

Brad Cox, flanked by jockey Joel Rosario and senior manager for the Korea Racing Authority Jin Woo Lee, takes questions from the media after Knicks Go won the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar. What led Cox to such a moment? Find out below ...
Brad Cox, flanked by jockey Joel Rosario and senior manager for the Korea Racing Authority Jin Woo Lee, takes questions from the media after Knicks Go won the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar. What led Cox to such a moment? Find out below ...

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I really wanted to know his take on the question. It mattered ... in light of what he had just accomplished. He was asked a boatload of questions during the week, and over the course of 2021 too, but I am not sure that anyone asked him what I wanted to. Inside what was appropriately known as the “Champions Terrace” at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the press conference had just let out. With television monitors affixed throughout the main room, the replay was becoming more familiar every few minutes, as the party was just underway. A speedy gray Thoroughbred by Paynter was streaking across the screen, moving ever-so effortlessly from left to right, then right to left, and back once again.

The runner’s command was apparent … some competitors made it somewhat interesting before the top of the lane. However, with Joel Rosario riding the rocket, in the end the horse controlled the engine all the way to a magnificent score. Even though it was by only a handful of lengths, everyone understood exactly what was happening. As the tape in the Terrace looped, it was more and more impressive each time, even though there was a pause when you expected the next time around to be different … it wasn’t. The Breeders’ Cup Classic was over, and Brad Cox’s Knicks Go, owned by the Korean Racing Authority, had won … convincingly, wrapping up what many consider Eclipse Horse of the Year honors.

Standing rather motionless, I patiently waited. One of my fellow turfwriters was firmly planted in front of me, and I had to take a number. All year long I have been asking members of the horse racing universe a central question, “What is more important to your arc of development, ambition or aspiration?” The responses have cut wide swaths across the spectrum. Some were quick to respond, “Well, I don’t particularly care for the word ambition.” While others understood it was not avaricious, but rather a “driving force behind everything I do.” I wanted to ask the question of Cox, not only because he is an Eclipse Award-winning trainer, and now has a BC Classic win to his name, but also because of what I have observed from him during Breeders’ Cup Week.

When my turn came around, I asked him about his level of determination and intensity. I posed my terribly unscientific poll question by couching it just so, “Brad, which do you value more … ambition or aspiration.” He looked at me squarely, for a split second determining its merits, and asked me in return, “Well, define aspiration for me.” I thought that was brilliant … not only because it spoke to wanting to gather more evidence before offering an answer, but more so, because it exhibited his intuitive nature. To rebut, I told him that for me, it meant that there was something beyond the attainment of any achievement—aspirations not met, can still offer lessons learned. I went on … ambition always seems much easier to define because it is wrapped up in a strong desire for victory … sometimes at all costs.

Cox took my words under advisement, then he cogently offered this, “I think it’s a bit of both for me.” He went on to say coolly and confidently, “I think you try and balance them, finding ways to push both of them forward.” When Cox talked about both ambition and aspiration being forces in his corner, it made sense after watching him over the past week around his barn area at Del Mar. In my travels throughout the backside, from Tuesday on, I was continually impressed with his marked movements. Everything about him was about preparation. Now, you might say, that’s what trainers “do.” But I would respectfully disagree. Cox is different. As he explained to me, he takes what he calls very plainly, “a hands-on approach.” It is all-encompassing. I observed other conditioners … arms folded, puzzling out some problem, but few worked like he did. It was intentional, and purpose driven …

Just off a workout in the days before the Breeders' Cup Classic, Knicks Go takes some refreshment, as exercise rider Edvin Vargas stores his tack.
Just off a workout in the days before the Breeders' Cup Classic, Knicks Go takes some refreshment, as exercise rider Edvin Vargas stores his tack.

No matter what time of day it was, there was a chance that Cox would be bustling about. When the veterinarians came by, when connections were peering into his stalls, or when members of the press were after a quote, he was there. He wasn’t idly holding up a post or crouched down on a stool. No, he was leading Shedaresthedevil for breezing, hosing down Knicks Go, or concerned about Essential Quality’s bandage wraps. I witnessed him conferring with righthand Cathy Riccio or talking strategy with main exercise rider Edvin Vargas; Cox was professional, focused, and concerned about not only the next move, but the 4 moves after that one.

Speaking of advancement across squares on a board … there are no small details in this business. To give an example as the week progressed, one afternoon a small loader came trudging through the middle of the stable area where Cox’s charges were lined. It was moving a giant pile of hay that was positioned between one of the “dogtrots” that led to other quarters. As the operator did his work, he would throw the machine into reverse, and the safety back-up noise would sound. It was piercing, and clearly many of the occupants in the stalls were annoyed by the sound. Essential Quality, his prize 3-yr-old who won the Belmont Stakes back in June, giving Cox his 1st Triple Crown race victory, reacted. He was ducking his head out and then back in his stall, as the sound reverberated throughout the complex. Cox witnessed this, and I asked him if he thought the colt was sensitive to the decibel levels. “Yes, for sure … that is probably why he (EQ) is doing that … we want to do something about everything that they come in contact with because it can really unsettle them,” the trainer admitted. He was on it …

That is Cox. With his clever mix of long-range planning and day-to-day assessments, his command of a bevy of facts and figures is always ready to launch. Louisville born and raised; the trainer has an investigator’s sense about what to do when—no matter the size of what he faces. You rarely see him rattled when it comes to questions that are fired at him. His plan is seemingly always to move the ball forward … looking to the next race or scenario. That’s why his rapid expansion has moved him from places like Churchill or Oaklawn to the Fair Grounds or Keeneland, up to NYRA courses, and even, as he proved this past year with Knicks Go, to Saudi Arabia. Shipping is Cox’s middle name, and he can take on the very best competition that Thoroughbred racing has to offer.

This week, as Thanksgiving approaches, he is set to defend his training title in New Orleans at the Fair Grounds. Don’t forget he has won the past 4 Meets in the Bayou City, and is already poised to make it 5 in-a-row. With a strong team behind him, it appears he will also be ready to shuttle runners back and forth from the mouth of the Mississippi up to chilly Hot Springs for the Oaklawn Meet. By-the-way, that storied hamlet is upping its scheduled start to early December, an interesting twist to say the least. Cox will be “very present” at both locations. When it comes to what drives him, as he told me, it is a healthy dose of both ambition and aspiration that keeps him focused and ready to take on new challenges. With every interview he gives to a member of the media, if you listen carefully, you get a strong sense that he relishes the moment when a win occurs.

Yet, he is also simultaneously preparing himself to get back to work, solving the next set of issues that will certainly arise when the time comes. That is what makes him interesting. Not only does his industriousness shine through, but he also possesses a strong sense of where he currently stands. Ambition fuels a portion of that equation, but the aspirations … those are equally significant when it comes to future applications—celebrated wins and tough losses. Cox, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer who is probably destined for another one come January, might not have all the answers, but he is also not afraid to ask for a definition … when it’s necessary. And that … is why, I think, Brad Cox wins …

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