Commentary: The Essential Brad Cox

Trainer Brad Cox has a real shot at the Oaks-Derby double this weekend
Trainer Brad Cox has a real shot at the Oaks-Derby double this weekend

The training career of Brad Cox brings to mind the quote from Archimedes, or some variation of it, when he supposedly wrote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” 

Cox has done just that . . . moved the Thoroughbred racing world. 

His well-documented commitment, drive, and determination have paid dividends. As we head towards the running of the 147th Kentucky Derby, his resolve to “win” this signature race in his hometown of Louisville, seems inevitable. His colt, Essential Quality, the Godolphin homebred, is ready to assist him in realizing this specific goal.

Regardless of how you see the 147 finish, let’s concentrate on the source of Cox’s own horsepower—his work ethic. Everything he has done along his arc of involvement with the sport continues to be about molding chance with a healthy dose of sweat. No one single entity handed it to him, so the story goes. He set his mind to work, and rolled up his sleeves, focusing on a larger vision of what that could become.

That kind of zeal and moxie takes a special type of person who can logically see something long before it happens, all the while exercising extreme amounts of patience. At different points in his career, he ran headlong into roadblocks, i.e. how to get started, how to keep a stable, what to do next after his 1st Breeders’ Cup score . . . etc. What is most interesting is that almost at every turn, he learned from mistakes and poor choices (those are different entities), finding the strength to recalibrate in the face of doing what was expedient. That’s a business model perfected by Fortune 500 Companies, and those that embrace the meaning of innovation.

He is like the human version of a Lamport timestamp—a simple logical clock algorithm used to determine the order of events in a distributed computer system. In this way, Cox’s most fascinating move was to “time” eras of his own development in such a way that could be useful to attracting new clients, trying a variety of surfaces, and entering races up and down the class meter. His stable was effective at not being pigeon-holed or typecast. Some trainers become “claimers” (he was on the road at one point), while others are known for their abilities to train say, “turf sprinters” or “young fillies.” 

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Cox seemed to realize that building a base at specific tracks, like Churchill, Oaklawn, and the Fair Grounds, could lend itself to giving him the opportunity to run at “key” parts of the year. With his native Louisville as a base, New Orleans could merge with Hot Springs, to form a year-long operation. Others had tried it with limited success . . . what it would really take, were some clients that would trust Cox with their prized possessions. Enter Monomoy Girl . . .

Invariably, there seems to always be 1 or 2 runner(s) in a trainer’s stable who can put them over the top in terms of helping to reach the upper echelons of stardom. Having a proven winner in important races on major cards (i.e. Kentucky Derby Day and the Breeders’ Cup) creates a positive notoriety, and is an effective marketing tool when it comes to hooking new clientele. 

There is this odd cult of personality surrounding conditioners. Some are bombastic, using their platform to become larger than life characters. While others are content to remain behind the scenes, letting their “numbers” do the talking. So much of what they “talk” about with the media seems like something out of a John Crist comedy routine. They use “buzz” words about workouts, give quasi-medical reports on general health, and if something does not go to plan, they try to offer some poignant explanation of where exactly the trouble came from. 

Watching with some regularity Cox’s interviews, you will find a fellow who is rather uncomplaining in his approach. He has the ability to crack a smile, but most of the time he chooses discretion. His greatest asset is his ability to rattle off significant statistics without any hesitation. Throughout this cadence, he is measured in his approach, confident in his choice of words, and specific with his examples. He doesn’t necessary disagree directly with a specific question, but he will diplomatically alter it in a subtle fashion. It’s like a safecracker who changes the combination without you knowing that he just did, after just accessing the vault. If you listen to the quickness with which he marshals quarter-pole times or speaks to a specific tactic that his team was working on, he is ready to deploy answers at a moment’s notice. 

That voice of sureness is “essential” when it comes to commentary, and speaks to his assertive nature. He doesn’t use $25 dollar words, when a 50 cent one will do. Simplifying something as complex as training a Thoroughbred is a real art, and that is how Cox has wooed new ownership groups. Over the years, he has added both Godolphin and Juddmonte to the long list of those that are queuing to employ him. The list goes on . . .

For what it is worth, Team Cox is grounded by their principal and leader, but they appear to do the same for him. Winning the Eclipse Award as a trainer is more about having a great staff than it is about prowess. To put it another way, it is the hallmark of any barn’s success, even if you have a stable that includes Knicks Go, Monomoy Girl, Essential Quality, Mandaloun, Caddo River, Travel Column, Coach, Aunt Pearl, Shedaresthedevil, Arklow, Juliet Foxtrot, and many, many others. It takes a want, plus a great squad to make it all happen.

Brad Cox didn’t just become Brad Cox, who is poised to collect his first Kentucky Derby win. He did it with sacrifice and an absolute commitment to the labors necessary for success. Whatever happens on Saturday, Derby Day, the Louisville native will know he did whatever he could to put his runners in the proper position to score. 

That is what makes the essential Brad Cox, and that’s an Archimedean lever that can move the Thoroughbred world.   

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