He was a thoroughbred of unflashy pedigree from a young and humble breeding operation in Baltimore County.
Knicks Go had run with real sizzle as a 2-year-old but had not won at all as a 3-year-old, the time when famous racehorses are expected to come into their own. In fact, he had finished 10th in his last start. If he did not impress his new trainer, Brad Cox, in an allowance race at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park — and he was not favored to win that afternoon in February 2020 — he faced the prospect of early retirement.
What a difference two years make.
Knicks Go did not lose that race in Arkansas; in fact, he led it wire-to-wire. Cox did not retire him. An ankle injury derailed the colt’s training for several months, but when he returned to the track in October 2020, he again led from the start and won by 10 ¼ lengths. That dominant victory propelled him to the big stage, the Breeders’ Cup, where he sprinted away from 11 other horses with $1 million on the line.
Somehow, he topped himself as a 5-year-old, with wins in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga in New York, and best of all, the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic in Del Mar, California. When the industry hands out its Eclipse Awards on Feb. 10, Knicks Go is expected to be named 2021 Horse of the Year. He would be the first Maryland-bred to win the honor since Cigar in 1996.
Before then, the gray colt has a bit of business to conduct, namely his final career start Saturday in the Pegasus World Cup, where he’ll face one more daunting challenge, from the brilliantly fast Life Is Good, who would have been the Kentucky Derby favorite last year if not for a small chip in his ankle.
Can Knicks Go put an exclamation point on his improbable ascent, which began six years ago on 43-acre GreenMount Farm in Glyndon?
Sabrina Moore, the breeder who helped bring him into the world Jan. 29, 2016, will be in Florida to find out.
“I’m definitely not missing this one,” said the 30-year-old horsewoman, whose name has become more familiar in the racing industry with each of Knicks Go’s triumphs. “He’s already given us so much more than we ever expected.”
Moore started the breeding operation with her mother, Angie, and she’ll take a break from the beginning of another foaling season to watch the horse that put her on the national map. She still cannot quite believe the most accomplished dirt runner in the world took his first steps on her farm.
“Insane,” she said. “I’ve been watching the Breeders’ Cup on TV since I was a kid and to see him win the big race against those kinds of horses, to even be in the starting gate, it’s hard to find words for it.”
Knicks Go’s rise — he’s up to $8.67 million in career earnings, 16th all-time — has paralleled that of his trainer, Cox, who won his first Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer last year.
“It’s rare,” Cox said. “It’s going to be tough parting ways with him. I hope … some other horses jump up in the barn, but to think they’re going to fill his shoes, it’s going to be very, very hard. I believe that maybe we can, I’m hopeful we can find a horse that’s as good as Knicks Go, but he’s been a very rare talent.”
When Knicks Go came to his barn after that rough 3-year-old campaign under previous trainer Ben Colebrook, Cox knew he still had the talent that had made him a star at age 2. But he did not expect this.
“We just kind of let him get his feet back under him,” he recalled, praising the patience of Knicks Go’s owner, the Korea Racing Authority.
Cox believes Knicks Go, with his blinding starts and put-away speed around turns, has done enough over the last two years, and really the last 14 months, to make the Hall of Fame.
Questions of legacy aside, Knicks Go’s final race will present enticing tactical questions for fans and handicappers. He’s the ultimate front-runner, so what happens if Life Is Good goes all out to seize the early lead from him?
“That’s the most intriguing part of this race; you have two horses with a lot of natural speed and two horses that like to race on the front end,” said Life Is Good’s trainer, Todd Pletcher.
“It’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating,” said NBC analyst Randy Moss, who watched Knicks Go control the Breeders’ Cup Classic from the front in November. “There’s a case to be made that Life Is Good is a faster horse, naturally, than Knicks Go. But the question is going to be rider intent. We know … Knicks Go is not the same horse when he can’t get the early lead, so Joel Rosario is going to ride him with 100% intent to set the pace. Life Is Good, as fast as he is, we don’t know, and Todd Pletcher doesn’t know and [jockey] Irad [Ortiz Jr.] doesn’t know if he can sit a length off the lead and still run his race.”
Even if Knicks Go loses, as plenty of great horses have in their final starts, he will go down as one of the great turnaround stories in recent racing history and as the most accomplished Maryland-bred since the mighty Cigar, who won 16 straight races at the height of his Hall of Fame career.
His story is the type that pulls dreamers into thoroughbred racing generation after generation, even as the industry carries forward outside the awareness of casual sports fans. If the best horse in the world can come from a modest farm in Maryland without the benefit of regal pedigree or an eye-popping initial sale price ($40,000), why couldn’t it happen for you or me?
“That’s the one equalizer in horse racing; it’s what makes the game so great,” Cox said. “Just because you go to a sale and buy the most expensive horse doesn’t mean you’re getting the best or the fastest. A good horse can come from anywhere.”
“We’re all out here, trying to accomplish the same thing,” Moore said. “So I think to see a smaller guy come out on top, it’s certainly encouraging.”
Like Cox, she’s preparing for the pangs of melancholy that will come with Knicks Go’s exit from this phase of his career.
“He’s been a constant for a long time,” Moore said. “It’ll be weird not to be checking up on him or seeing how he’s working or wondering what he’s doing. It’s going to be bittersweet for sure.”
She has built a career in the business that captivated her as a teenager, but she’s a realist, and she knows there probably won’t be another Knicks Go.
“It’s hard enough to ever get this to happen in your lifetime in general,” she said. “But for it to happen to me so soon, I keep asking myself, ‘Well, what next?’”
The answer is clearer for Knicks Go, who will stand at stud, with an initial fee of $30,000, at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky. That fee is modest compared to those of less accomplished racehorses — Essential Quality, whom he beat in the Breeders’ Cup will start at $75,000 — reflecting the lingering skepticism around his pedigree.
Moore said it’s fair, given the standards of her trade.
“His family just isn’t as accomplished,” she said. “I feel like he’s kind of starting all over again. At the beginning of his racing career, he was underrated. Everybody looked past him because of the breeding and how small he was and the sale prices. Now, he has accomplished all these great things, and everybody thinks so highly of him … but it’s kind of funny, here we are with Knicks Go having to prove himself all over again.”