By Ed McNamara
Every year the Kentucky Derby makes the world focus on Louisville, where kids grow up crazy about horse racing.
Brad Cox was one of them.
He grew up two blocks from Churchill Downs, and Saturday he had his first chance to become the only Derby City native to train the winner of the great race.
He didn’t miss by much, and it wasn’t his undefeated 5-2 favorite, Essential Quality, who almost got the blanket of roses. The reigning 2-year-old champion finished fourth, only a length and a head behind 12-1 winner Medina Spirit, after a troubled trip. Instead, Cox’s hero nearly was 26-1 shot Mandaloun, who was a half-length away from becoming the first Derby winner since 1908 to come off a defeat of more than 10 lengths.
“He ran huge,” Cox said of Mandaloun. “He saved ground along the inside, battled and battled hard.”
Mandaloun also could have given rider Florent Geroux and international superpower Juddmonte Farms a first Derby trophy.
“He absolutely ran his heart out,” Geroux said. “Words can’t describe how proud I am of him. What a race and what a horse. Well done to Brad Cox. He got him ready to run off the Louisiana Derby effort. He showed us he is the horse we always thought. He just got beat.”
Making it more painful for Cox was that in mid-stretch Mandaloun briefly got his head in front of Medina Spirit before Bob Baffert’s record seventh Derby winner regained command.
“I thought he had a shot to win it there,” Cox said. “We just came up a little short.”
The gray Essential Quality showed grit after recovering from a hard bump with 9-2 second favorite Rock Your World shortly after the start. Essential Quality made a sustained run while five wide on the backstretch and was still in with a chance at the top of the stretch. He rallied wide and kept grinding away but never looked like catching the front-running winner.
Rock Your World was wiped out by the collision. Instead of contending for the lead, as was expected, he never got involved and plodded in 17th of 19. It was his first defeat in four starts. “It was pretty much over after the break,” jockey Joel Rosario said.
“The incident also took some juice out of Essential Quality, who had to work hard and rally from mid-pack.
“He didn’t get the greatest trip, as he was wide around both turns,” Cox said. “That can happen when you start from the 14 hole, especially when you don’t get off to a good start. He was leaning out on the far turn, and Luis (Saez) said he was shying away from the other horses.”
The loss was a bitter disappointment for Saez, a brilliant rider who finished first on Maximum Security two years ago but was taken down for interference. He was upbeat that Essential Quality could help make up for that historic DQ.
“He bumped pretty good out of the gate,” Saez said. “We ended up pretty wide the entire trip, which didn’t help, either.”
Mandaloun’s 11-length defeat as the 6-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby (G2) damaged his reputation, but three sharp workouts had created a bit of buzz for him. Essential Quality wasn’t training quite as well, but Cox expressed confidence he would run big.
Finishing a close second (worth $600,000) and a respectable fourth ($150,000) in your first Derby can hardly be considered failure, but Cox is hard-wired to excel.
“We will just have to regroup,” he said. “Proud of both horses. I just wish the order of finish was just a little different.”
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.