Trainer Cox seeks Derby history as Louisville’s first winner

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Brad Cox smiles when talking about Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, making it clear how important both are to the trainer.

After all, he grew up a few blocks away from the historic track. Cox began working with horses at Churchill Downs as a teenager before learning under several trainers and eventually branching out on his own 16 years ago. Along with that education came a natural appreciation for winning there, especially in the track’s two marquee races for colts and fillies.

“I mean, it’s home,” said Cox, 41. “Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days, you know are the biggest things we have in racing in the state of Kentucky and it means a lot when you can win a race.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s a maiden race or a claiming race or whatever. Those two days, you always try to have as many as you can and do as well as you can.”

While the reigning Eclipse Award winner has earned his share of notable stakes wins, Saturday’s 147th Derby presents an opportunity for the home-grown Cox to make a career statement.

He will saddle expected favorite Essential Quality, last year’s Juvenile champion who is 5-0, and stablemate Mandaloun in the 20-horse field. Caddo River would have given him three chances but was withdrawn on Sunday.

Cox would become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Derby, a milestone that would add to the city’s rich racing roots and the state’s reputation for producing thoroughbreds.

Of course, it takes a special combination of bloodlines, talent, skill and luck just to get a horse to the Derby gate. Then comes the challenge of conquering that coveted 1\ mile against 19 other thoroughbreds with similarly elite pedigrees.

So there is no wonder it’s a big deal when a local gets a shot at glory.

“There’s a lot of external pressure put on guys more here, but it’s good pressure,” said Eclipse Award-winner trainer Dale Romans, a Louisville native who has finished third twice in the Derby. “I tell everyone that ever started training horses and gotten to the point where they know what the Derby is to understand the enormity of it how big a deal it is and how big it is.”

Romans adds that if Cox wins, “It would be good. I’d be very proud of him.”

Cox is aware of those obstacles and the spotlight he’s under with the horse to beat. He just doesn’t feel any pressure, going about business as usual and letting things sort themselves out.

“I’m willing to step up, and I know that it comes with more attention, I guess you would say,” said Cox, who has saddled 1,557 winners and won $86,471,263 lifetime.

“I wouldn’t use the word pressure. I just have to make some time for extra interviews and stuff like that.”

And Cox needs no directions to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, or elsewhere for that matter, coming off a career season ending with honors as racing’s top trainer.

He earned his second Kentucky Oaks win in last September’s delayed race with Shedaresthedevil. Veteran Monomoy Girl, the 2018 Oaks champ, won her second Breeders’ Cup Distaff in three years over at Keeneland in Lexington en route to a second Eclipse award and likely future spot in the Hall of Fame.

Cox added Breeders’ Cup triumphs in the Dirt Mile (Knicks Go) and Juvenile Fillies Turf (Aunt Pearl) before Essential Quality capped his stellar day by winning the Juvenile. He has another strong Kentucky Oaks contender in Travel Column on Friday but is laser focused on grooming his star grey colt to run the race of his life on Saturday.

Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who brings a quartet of challengers to Essential Quality, wouldn’t be shocked if Cox broke through.

“Brad has done a terrific job of building a really, really strong stable,” Pletcher said, “and he’s doing all the right things with it.”

Added trainer Doug O’Neill, “The numbers don’t lie. He knows what he’s doing. As he gets longer in the tooth in this sport, you’ll realize it’s all about the horse. You just try to do what’s right by your horse, and the results will be what they will.”

Successful as his career appears, Cox points out setbacks.

He began learning the ropes under Burk Kessinger and Jimmy Baker and spent five years as Dallas Stewart’s assistant trainer before going out on his own. Along the way, he has had to start over – including after losing a job with Midwest Thoroughbreds.

A couple of horses began his road back – including one named Dangerous Dream – and he has expanded his bases to Indiana, New York and Louisiana. But as Cox handles the heightened scrutiny Essential Quality has created, he tries not to get too high about it, just as he didn’t get too low in those down moments.

It’s his way of staying balanced and appreciative, though it’s obvious he’d love to see how a life-changing moment of winning the Derby feels.

“You take it whenever you can get that Kentucky Derby, no matter if it’s the first year or the last,” he said. “That’s the major goal. … It would be sweet to knock it off this year.”

Watch the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on and the NBC Sports app.

Churchill Downs moves meet to Ellis Park to examine protocols following 12 horse deaths

churchill downs
Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/USA TODAY NETWORK

Churchill Downs will suspend racing on Wednesday and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in order to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of safety and surface protocols in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

No single factor has been identified as a potential cause for the fatalities or pattern detected, according to a release, but the decision was made to relocate the meet “in an abundance of caution.”

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in Friday’s release. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7 and run through Aug. 27 but will now expand with Friday’s announcement.

Ellis Park will resume racing on June 10.

The move comes a day after track superintendent Dennis Moore conducted a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ racing and training surfaces as part of an emergency summit called this week by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) with the track and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Meetings took place in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the Louisville track.

The head of the federally created oversight agency suggested ahead of the summit that it could recommend pausing the meet and that Churchill Downs would accept that recommendation.

Churchill Downs’ release stated that expert testing raised no concerns and concluded that the surface was consistent with the track’s prior measurements. Even so, it chose to relocate “in alignment” with HISA’s recommendation to suspend the meet to allow more time for additional investigation.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement. “We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”

Carstanjen insisted that relocating the remainder of the spring meet to Ellis Park would maintain the industry ecosystem with minor disruption. He also said he was grateful to Kentucky horsemen for their support as they work to find answers.

Rick Hiles, the president of Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, questioned the move, especially since there’s no conclusive evidence that Churchill Downs’ surface is the problem.

“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said in a statement. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns.

“Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

The latest development comes a day after Churchill Downs and HISA each implemented safety and performance standards to address the spate of deaths.

HISA will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. Its Integrity and Welfare Unit also will collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.

Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers. The track is also pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and limiting purse payouts to the top five finishers instead of every finisher.

Forte works out, waits for Belmont Stakes clearance


NEW YORK — Forte, the early Kentucky Derby favorite who was scratched on the day of the race, worked out in preparation for a possible start in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte worked five-eighths of a mile for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. It was the colt’s second workout since being scratched from the Derby on May 6.

“It seems like he’s maintained his fitness level,” Pletcher said. “It seems like everything is in good order.”

Forte was placed on a mandatory 14-day veterinary list after being scratched from the Derby because of a bruised right front foot. In order to be removed from the list, the colt had to work in front of a state veterinarian and give a blood sample afterward, the results of which take five days.

“There’s protocols in place and we had to adhere to those and we’re happy that everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “We felt confident the horse was in good order or we wouldn’t have been out there twice in the last six days, but you still want to make sure everything went smoothly and we’re happy everything did go well.”

Pletcher said Kingsbarns, who finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, will miss the Belmont. The colt is showing signs of colic, although he is fine, the trainer said.

Another Pletcher-trained horse, Prove Worthy, is under consideration for the Belmont. He also has Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, being pointed toward the Belmont.