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For rising star Brad Cox, no accomplishment could beat a Kentucky Derby win with favored Essential Quality

Kentucky Derby entrant Essential Quality trainer Brad Cox looks over his horses at Churchill Downs Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kentucky Derby entrant Essential Quality trainer Brad Cox looks over his horses at Churchill Downs Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel / AP)

Talk to those who’ve worked closely with Brad Cox, and they’ll tell you there isn’t more to him than meets the eye. That’s why he’s so good.

Cox grew up two blocks from the home of the Kentucky Derby. Thoroughbred racing was the thing he obsessed about as a boy tailing his father, Jerry, to the betting window. It’s the thing he obsesses about now as the recently minted top trainer in North America.

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Kentucky Derby entrant Essential Quality gets a bath after a workout at Churchill Downs Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kentucky Derby entrant Essential Quality gets a bath after a workout at Churchill Downs Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel/AP)

“Most of the owners that deal with Brad Cox on a regular basis attribute his success to his all-consuming approach to training horses,” NBC racing analyst Randy Moss said. “They say that’s almost all he thinks about, all day, all night. He’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of the sport. He just puts so much time and effort into all the little details surrounding his horses that it’s really impressed the owners that he works with, and so, consequently, he’s getting better and better horses to train.”

Cox never minded telling anyone that he wanted to win the Derby more than any other race in the world. Now, he’s favored to do just that Saturday with an undefeated 3-year-old named Essential Quality.

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The 41-year-old Louisville native has never even had a Derby entry before, so this race — in which he’ll also saddle a gifted second-tier contender, Mandaloun — is another milestone in a career that’s been packed with them over the last three years.

“It would probably be the biggest accomplishment — and I can’t say that there would be one any bigger as far as the thoroughbred industry goes in my eyes,” Cox said. “We’ve been very fortunate to win two Kentucky Oaks, seven Breeders’ Cup races and an Eclipse Award. Those are things that I’ll never forget and I’m very proud of those, but the Kentucky Derby is No. 1. I’m not bashful about saying it.”

If there isn’t a lot of sizzle to Cox’s words, there’s plenty of substance in his steady rise to the top of the sport. He didn’t win his first graded stakes until 2014, a decade into his training career, and didn’t capture his first Grade 1 until 2018 with the great filly Monomoy Girl. Since then, he’s had a rocket strapped to him, with seven Breeders’ Cup wins, more than $60 million in earnings and an Eclipse Award recognizing him as North America’s top trainer for 2020.

He’s one of the big boys now, breathing the same rarefied air as Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown as he supervises 150 horses at multiple tracks and takes gifted 2-year-olds from some of the wealthiest owners in the sport. Essential Quality, for example, is owned by Godolphin, the racing operation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai.

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The disappearance of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum has cast a bit of a shadow over the team with at least one group requesting the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission bar the horse from competing.

The racing success and an owner’s troubles have done nothing to diminish Cox’s obsessive approach to his work.

“There’s no glitz; what you see is what you get,” said owner Sol Kumin, who sent Monomoy Girl to Cox when he was still unknown on the national stage. “All these trainers work extremely hard, but nobody outworks him. He’s always at the barn. No matter which horse it is, Monomoy Girl or a $30,000 claimer, he knows everything.”

Kumin’s ownership group tested Cox by sending him horses that had not excelled with other trainers. More often than not, he picked the right races to squeeze better performances out of these recycled runners.

Cox displayed two traits a top owner would love: he answered calls at any hour of day or night, and he never lied, even when the news was disheartening.

As a trainer expands his operation to multiple sites and does business with multiple demanding owners, it’s easier to lose track of details, but Kumin said he’s observed no slippage from Cox, who has maintained a stable staff of top assistants.

Owner and trainer built a bond through Monomoy Girl, who took both of them to the top of the sport. It was not hard to spot the deep emotion washing over Cox’s face after the filly’s signature victories in the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

“It’s special,” said Kumin, who played lacrosse at Johns Hopkins. “He’ll go on to do great things. Maybe he wins the Derby this weekend; if not, he will win a Derby. He’ll have a special relationship with whoever that owner is, but the first ones are important. When he looks back in his Hall of Fame speech, he’ll say, ‘Those guys sent us some horses at the beginning.’”

Cox’s wife, racetrack veterinarian Livia Frazar, told the Paulick Report he even talks about entries in his sleep. His three sons have grown up around his Kentucky barn, and the older two, Blake and Bryson, already work for him.

Cox doesn’t seem wary of the spotlight he’s put on himself. He spent most of his life yearning to reach this position. It’s a burden he would have gladly accepted in the years when he did not have top horses and had to start over because his main owner, Midwest Thoroughbreds, fired him.

“I’m not too nervous yet, just getting excited,” he told reporters Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs.

Other trainers who’ve walked the same path can identify.

“When you get to that level, more people recognize you, and the expectations increase,” Pletcher said. “That’s ultimately the position that you’re hoping to get to as a trainer, and Brad has done a terrific job of building a really, really strong stable. He’s doing all the right things with it.”

The question now is whether Essential Quality has the talent to keep Cox rolling? The 2-1 morning-line favorite is easily the most accomplished horse in the Derby field. His victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was a significant gem in Cox’s growing collection, and the gray colt has won in a variety of ways over five career starts.

“He’s got so many intangibles that he has already been through,” said NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. “He’s had trouble here at Churchill Downs, still won. He’s been close to the pace. He’s been far off the pace. Depending on the pace, if it’s fast he can be farther back. He’s not pace-dependent.”

That said, Bailey and his broadcast partner, Moss, see little to separate the top horses in the field, including Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World, Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie and Florida Derby winner Known Agenda. In fact, some handicappers see more brilliance in Cox’s other Derby horse, Mandaloun, who ran a baffling sixth in the Louisiana Derby but has trained sharply at Churchill Downs.

“I would say he’s solid but not spectacular,” Moss said of Essential Quality. “He’s slightly below-average, I would say, for a Kentucky Derby favorite historically. Now, looking at the other horses on paper this year, that might be good enough to win. But if there are any other horses in the race that are capable of jumping up and running an above-average Kentucky Derby, then they’ll probably beat him, but he’ll be right there plugging away. He’s a very, very consistent horse that doesn’t have to have things his own way.”

Only two horses, Street Sense and Nyquist, have won both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Derby, illustrating how difficult it is to maintain top form over that six-month span. So far, Essential Quality has pulled it off.

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“He’s very adaptable,” Cox said. “And it’s exactly what you want to see with a horse in the Kentucky Derby, as far as I’m concerned.”

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147TH KENTUCKY DERBY

Saturday, 6:57 p.m. post time

TV: NBCSN (12:30 p.m.), Chs. 11, 4 (2:30 p.m.)

Triple Crown series: Preakness, May 15; Belmont, June 5

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