By Richard Rosenblatt
As we embark on the road to the 147th Kentucky Derby (G1), it’s becoming difficult to avoid writing about Brad Cox.
The affable almost 41-year-old trainer from Louisville, Kentucky has soared to the top of his class, up there with the likes of Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, and Steve Asmussen after a 2020 dream season despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Caddo River became his latest rising star 3-year-old on Friday, romping to a 10 ¼-length victory in the $150,000 Smarty Jones on opening day at Oaklawn Park.
Now 2-for-2, Caddo River joins the ranks of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Essential Quality, Mandaloun, and Swill as a Cox quartet on the Derby trail.
After winning seven Breeders’ Cup races in the past two years – a record-equaling four in 2020 — Cox is a first-time finalist for an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top trainer (Baffert and Asmussen are the other finalists). His 2020 horses are Eclipse finalists in five categories: Monomoy Girl (Horse of the Year and Older Dirt Female); Essential Quality (2-Year-Old Male); Aunt Pearl (2-Year-Old Female) and Shedaresthedevil (3-Year-Old Filly).
He’s also looking for his first Kentucky Derby starter, and if his stable of 3-year-olds remains healthy, he could wind up saddling several on the first Saturday in May.
“It would mean a lot to get to the Derby cause I’ve never been,” Cox has said. “But I’ve always said I want to go with a real shot at winning it. I have no interest in showing up 50-1 with no shot.”
The way things are going, he could show up with the favorite, be it Essential Quality (3-for-3) or Caddo River. Of course, six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, who trains highly-touted Life is Good, may have something to say about that as the preps play out.
“Brad is a genius,” co-owner Michael Dubb said after Aunt Pearl’s win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. “He plots everything and has enormous attention to detail. In fact, he just lives and breathes horses.’’
Currently, Life is Good is the Derby future wager’s early favorite, with Essential Quality the second choice.
Derby qualifying points don’t matter much right now, but Essential Quality leads with 30, and Caddo River earned 10 for his win in the 1-mile Smarty Jones.
Owned by John Ed Anthony’s Shortleaf Stables, Caddo River took the early lead under Florent Geroux and was never challenged, with 2-1 second choice Cowan next and stablemate Big Thorn third, 7 ¼ lengths behind the runner-up.
Time for the race was 1:38 over a fast track.
“He broke very alertly,” Geroux said. “Very nice and relaxed. You want to see these type horses doing it the right way. It’s easy to go to the lead and keep on going. You want them to relax and do everything right. He did everything perfect.”
The Derby, scheduled for its usual date after being run on Sept. 5 in 2020, is 1 ¼ miles, but Geroux – Cox’s go-to rider – isn’t concerned about adding distance.
“The distance doesn’t look like it’s going to be a problem,’’ he said. “Very excited about what’s coming up ahead of us with him. Looks like he can run all day, which is a good problem. Hopefully, we can go on, go up the stepping stones and have a nice horse for the first Saturday in May.”
Cowan, trained by Asmussen, earned four Derby points to move into 13th place on the leaderboard. He earned four points for a finishing second in the Springboard Mile.
Caddo River, a homebred son of Hard Spun, returned $3.20 for a $2 win bet.
A trio of graded stakes winners are among 22 nominees to the $200,000 Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30. Along with the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita, the races are next up in the Derby prep series.
Mutasaabeq, winner of the Mucho Macho Man (G2) on Jan. 2, and Grade 3 winner Pickin’ Time and Sittin On Go lead the nominees list for the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull.
Shadwell Stable’s Mutasaabeq was a 1 ½-length winner of the 1-mile Mucho Macho Man upon his return to dirt after winning the Bourbon (G2) on grass and finishing 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).
Last year, Tiz the Law won the Holy Bull, then went on to win the Florida Derby (G1), Belmont Stakes (G1) and Travers (G1) before running second in the Derby to Authentic.
In the 2020 Robert B. Lewis, Baffert’s Thousand Words won, and this year it looks like the trainer will be sending out Spielberg, winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) on Dec. 19 in his last start.
Also pointing to the 1 1/16-mile Lewis is the Doug O’Neill-trained Hot Rod Charlie, who ran a close second to Essential Quality in the BC Juvenile at odds of 94-1.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.