Every time Brad Cox looks at his first Eclipse Award as 2020’s Champion Trainer, he should give thanks to Knicks Go. For if there was ever an example of how important a trainer’s impact is on an individual horse, well, the story of Knicks Go and Cox is Exhibit A.
And if there was ever an example of giving a horse just one more chance, well, here’s Exhibit B. Because at this time last year, Knicks Go was on the verge of retirement.
Now, he’s on the verge of equine superstardom. The 5-year-old Paynter offspring is one of the two favorites for Saturday’s Saudi Cup. Knicks Go went from underachieving, distracted colt to front-running horse on a mission.
For that, we go back to the end of 2019, when Knicks Go was an aggressive colt who liked to train. He didn’t like to race, however, even as the talent was there. Knicks Go was a 70/1 Grade 1 winner as a 2-year-old and finished second at 40/1 to Game Winner in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Knicks Go Found His Horse Whisperer
In otherwords, Knicks Go fell into the trap that captures thousands of horses over the years. They never find the right outlet, trainer or system to maximize their talent. The results didn’t match the talent. Not from a horse who opened his career a head-scratching 2-for-14 under former trainer Ben Colebrook. How could a horse with this much speed, who loved to run, win only two of 14 races?
The last straw came in November 2019. Knicks Go finished 10th out of 11 horses in the Grade 3 Commonwealth Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs. He was second at the quarter-mile call, but faded at every subsequent call. By the stretch, he was ninth. At the wire he was 10 ¾ lengths behind the winner.
The Korea Racing Authority, which owns Knicks Go, stopped scratching their heads. Instead, they put them together. Robby Medina, the general manager of Blackwood Stables and former assistant trainer to Shug McGaughey, called Cox and asked him to take Knicks Go and see what he could do.
Apprentice Riders Need Not Apply
“They warned us he’s an aggressive horse who likes to train,” Cox told the Saudi Cup notes team. “It really takes a good rider to handle him. He’s forward, he’s tough and he’s eager and that makes him a very good work horse. You lead him over to the races with confidence because of that.”
Knicks Go’s first race under Cox came 3 ½ months later – an allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn Park. And it was a revelation. With Cox asking for a front-running, seize-the-moment race, Knicks Go led at every call. He pulled away down the stretch and won by 7 ½ lengths. His 109 Equibase Speed Figure was a 22-point improvement over his November figure.
“The first race he had with us was (an allowance condition) at Oaklawn and we thought ‘If this horse doesn’t show up and run, then mentally he’s done. Because you can’t train that well and not compete in a two other than allowance,’” Cox said. “Then he showed up and ran big, but had a setback and the owners were talking about retiring him. But I told them we should just give him the time and see how he comes back. And if he doesn’t, then we can just retire him.”
Cox Earned More Than His Keep With One Decision
That’s how close Knicks Go came to going bye-bye. After 7 ½ month on the shelf, Cox talked his KRA owners into giving Knicks Go another shot. The shot came at Keeneland, in an October allowance and Knicks Go turned that shot into a 10 ¼-length demolition of his rivals.
His 116 Equibase remains his career high, a tick above his 114 for his record Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victory a month later (114) or the 115 for his Pegasus World Cup win last month.
Those two victories put Knicks Go on a fast break reminiscent of another late bloomer – Arrogate. He won seven races between June 2016 and March 2017. That included the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup, then the richest race in the world.
Knicks Go almost didn’t run the Pegasus, but Cox saw speed figures that changed his mind. Two weeks before the race, Knicks Go turned in a 1:39 mile gallop at Fair Grounds. Cox was sold.
Simple Running Makes Knicks Go Go Faster
“I don’t know how anyone else trains but myself, but one thing we do with him and all our horses is we allow them to train on,” Cox said. “We let them stretch their legs and do strong gallop-outs and keep them happy. Two weeks before the Pegasus, he put in a phenomenal piece of work that gave us the confidence that he would go (1,800 meters, the Saudi Cup distance). … We put draw reins on him and let him gallop. He raced a lot as a 3-year-old, was lightly raced as a 4-year-old and now is totally sound as a 5-year-old and you can see that in the way he moves. He floats over the ground right now.”
That’s not to say Knicks Go is an easy ride. Not hardly. Cox told jockey Joel Rosario before his Keeneland allowance win that he’d “just have to hold on.” Rosario had no problems, telling Cox “man, this is a really nice horse.” The two are unbeaten in three races together.
Knicks Go Returns 35.5 Times His Price Tag
Meanwhile, Knicks Go – an $87,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase in 2017 – brings career earnings north of $3 million into the Saudi Cup. A win here puts a ‘1’ before the ‘3’ – giving him more than $13 million. And this is February of his 5-year-old campaign. There remain many lucrative spots for Knicks Go: the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Whitney, and of course, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The retirement talk can wait until then. Knicks Go has more to prove. But Cox, never one to rest on a horse’s laurels, remembers what he and his owners were thinking about this time last year. That was more than $2.3 million ago.
“It was that time of year, around March, when it wasn’t like he could go off to stud and get any business, so we brought him back and it worked out well, obviously,” Cox said.