Most of Brad Cox’s childhood sporting memories center around his love affair with Kentucky basketball, especially when the Wildcats went to three straight Final Fours from 1996 through 1998.
“And ’97, we lost in overtime [to Arizona], I kind of remember that one,” Cox, now 39, recalled Thursday. “I remember that one more than the championships [in 1996 and 1998].”
Cox was standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course, where two of the horses he trains, Owendale and Warrior’s Charge, will run in the 144th Preakness on Saturday.
It will mark the third trip to Pimlico for Cox, but his first entries in a Triple Crown race. Warrior’s Charge is currently at 12-1, with Owendale at 10-1.
“When you’re 10-1, 12-1, if you know the horse is doing well and they run their race and they’re good enough, it’s great. If not, it’s probably not where you belong,” Cox said. “Bottom line.”
Whether or not his two 3-year-olds prove they belong at the Preakness, Cox has shown over the past five years he is a rising star in the horse training business.
With 84 wins in 334 starts and more than $4.7 million in earnings this year, Cox is hoping to continue a string of six straight years with career highs in victories and purses won.
As much as Cox knew “really early” on that he probably wouldn’t suit up to play for his beloved Wildcats, growing up in Louisville close to Churchill Downs gave him an idea about a career working with horses.
“My dad would take me to the races when I was young,” Cox said. “I decided when I was 10 or 11 years old that I wanted to be in the horse business. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was way too big to be a jockey, so maybe I’d be a trainer.”
That his family didn’t have any professional connections to the sport wasn’t a concern for Cox.
“There’s a lot of people that have a close connection to the industry, but they don’t have a passion or drive or desire,” Cox said. “It’s like anything. You get out what you put into it. It’s a very demanding grind. … But when you win a big race, it’s the greatest feeling there is.”
Owendale has won three times in eight starts, including twice this year, most recently in last month’s Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Warrior’s Charge, who raced just once as a 2-year-old and five times overall, won his past two starts at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Because Warrior’s Charge didn’t have the credentials to be nominated to run in the Preakness, his owners — Ten Strike Racing and Madaket Stables — put up the supplemental $150,000 entry fee. (Horses that are nominated have only a $600 entry fee.)
“We’re still learning, the horse is still trying to figure things out,” Cox said. “Obviously he’s never run in a stakes. His two races around a mile and 1/16 were really strong. It’s a big ask for him. We think if he can be the right setup, he can be in the mix.”
Cox said he doesn’t feel any added pressure because of the money Warrior’s Charge’s owners put up.
“Not for me. It may be for them,” he said, smiling. “I want to deliver for them. They’re great clients. As far as preparing the horse for day-to-day training, we’re not doing anything different. It’s exactly what I told [the owners] last week. We’re preparing for the Sir Barton anyway. It really wasn’t a big decision.”
Just as the two horses are stabled at Pimlico among more accomplished competitors, so is Cox when it comes to other trainers in the Preakness. It’s not lost on Cox that his horse’s stalls along the shed row are located between Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas.
While the preparation doesn’t feel any different from other races, knowing Baffert and Lukas will be saddling horses Saturday gives Cox a boost of adrenaline. Baffert will be looking for his eighth Preakness win, Lukas his seventh.
Asked what it’s like to go head-to-head with them, Cox said. “It’s neat. I watched these guys growing up and idolized them. It’s cool being in a stable between ’em, to be honest with you. It’s special. It means a lot.”
Lukas won his first start in the Preakness with Codex in 1980 in a controversial race. Jacinto Vásquez, the jockey for Genuine Risk, the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby, claimed his horse was fouled by Codex’s jockey, Angel Cordero Jr. After weeks of talk and turmoil, the victory stood.
What advice would he give Cox at his first Triple Crown race as a trainer?
“Bring the right horse, that’s the first thing. The most important ingredient is the horse,” Lukas said Thursday. “He’s had enough seasoned in these stakes and stuff to I’m sure feel [confident] to what he’s getting done.
“It is easy to get caught up in the hype and change up what got you there, what you know is the right thing. I watch some of the young guys at the Derby and I just draw a line through their horses. It’s a game of experience. There’s no how-to book.”