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 Caddo River would have given him three chances but was withdrawn on Sunday.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 NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.