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 Caddo River would have given him three chances but was withdrawn on Sunday.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

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.