Cox pair may hold key to Classic

Brad Cox is likely to need his eyes in more than one place when the stalls open for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.

Cox sent out a record-equalling four winners at the meeting last year – with his Classic pair doing their bit, as Knicks Go took the Dirt Mile and Essential Quality the Juvenile.

Tactics for Knicks Go will be no secret on Saturday, because he will go from the front. Quite how far Essential Quality sits off the pace will depend on how fast his stablemate goes – and that could be very quick, because front-running Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is in the field, not to mention Hot Rod Charlie.

Cox said: “They’re not going to get in each other’s way, which is good for me!

“There’s some other speed in the race (apart from Knicks Go), just looking at the other horses. (But) I think he is the speed of the speed, and we’re not going to take that away from him. We’re going to ask him to run out of there and establish a position early, and what anyone else does is up to them.

“But we are going to be very aggressive, hopefully he gets the lead going into the first turn and he’s able to clear off. I think that gives him his best opportunity to win.”

On the pace in the race, and whether Knicks Go will be hassled by Medina Spirit, Cox said: “If they’re head and head and going 46 (seconds, for the first half-mile), up there going that fast that early, there’s a possibility that one or both of them could back up and that could play to Essential Quality.

“The one thing about him is he’s shown his ability to adapt to pace – if it’s hot he can sit off and come running, and if it’s a soft pace he can sit close. It’s probably not going to be a soft pace, so we’re thinking they’re probably going to get away from him in the early part and he’ll be running around the turn and down the lane.”

Cox is rightly proud of both of his contenders, who will be very difficult to keep out of the Horse of the Year picture should either be triumphant.

He said: “Obviously they both performed well in the last quarter of 2020, and it’s been a great year. Both horses have stayed in good form for the most part.

“Knicks Go, I felt like we may have rushed him a little bit after the Pegasus (World Cup), shipping him to the other side of the world for the Saudi Cup and then the Met Mile, but aside from those two bumps in the road he’s been ultra consistent – and we’re proud of what he’s accomplished.

“Essential Quality has never missed a beat. He ran a big race in the Derby, the only defeat of his career, and you could argue he ran one of the better races that day (having raced wide and covering more ground than virtually the whole field). Both horses have had great years.”

A Grade One winner in his juvenile days, Knicks Go rediscovered himself when joining the Cox barn as a four-year-old.

His trainer said: “I don’t know if it’s anything we did in regards to training him, I think he’s just developed. We got him, and he’d come off a little bit of a freshening – he was a happy, sound horse, and we were able to win a second level allowance and then he had a setback. He had an injury, and they talked about retiring him – but breeding season had already started, and it was going to be no good retiring him at the point.

“So we brought him back, and if he hadn’t been doing well we were going to retire him, but he was training better than ever. He’s been a good horse from the beginning – his Grade One win at two was not a fluke, and he followed it up with a big race at the Breeders’ Cup. I think what he did was he was able to catch his breath, get a breather and develop. Horses are supposed to get faster at four and five, and he was a really fast two-year-old.

“I think he’s just developed – I don’t know if it was any one thing we did with him. We don’t really train him any different than we do our other horses – he’s able to take more training and breeze faster and work faster, because he’s better than a lot of them. We allow him to really stretch his legs and do what he likes to do – he likes to train.

“He’s always been a very good horse, he’s just developed with time as an older horse. Lots of times when horses go from two to three, or three to four, and there’s an improvement there’s normally a gap – they don’t all of a sudden get better.

“It allows the horse to mature and recover from the rigours of training and racing, and they come back and their body catches up physically and they move forward.

“It was an amazing achievement for him to be able to win the Dirt Mile, running as fast as he did, and I think if he wins the Classic he’d be up close or on the lead and run some solid fractions the first part and finish up well. We’ll see how it goes, but it would definitely go down as one of the best accomplishments at the Breeders’ Cup.”

Third in the Kentucky Derby and just behind Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes, Hot Rod Charlie has answered every call for Doug O’Neill.

“He’s very versatile – the race looks very competitive, and there’s a lot of speed signed up in there,” said O’Neill.

“That being said, I love the continuity of having Flavien Prat back on him and having the versatility in being able to come from off it if the pace is too hot and we’re not able to make the lead, or go and go – we’ve got options.

“There’d be nothing better than winning the Classic and being in that (Horse of the Year) conversation. I’m just very proud of him.”

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