This time last year Brad Cox did not picture Knicks Go as a future Grade 1 winner — much less the winner of the the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the likely favorite for Saturday’s $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1).
Yes, the Paynter colt had won the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) for former trainer Ben Colebrook in 2018 and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But 2019 was a different story. Knicks Go’s best finish was second place in the Ellis Park Derby, and Cox took over his conditioning after a 10th-place finish in the Commonwealth Turf Stakes (G3) in November.
Cox said he had no expectations for Knicks Go at the time.
“I was just inheriting a horse that had some back class and was obviously a Grade 1 winner,” he said on Sunday. “I never really expected to win any Grade 1s with him. Once we started training him, my expectations were to win a second-level allowance race. And he was able to do that — and do it to give me enough confidence to think that he was a stake horse.”
In his first start for Cox, Knicks Go won an allowance race at Oaklawn Park by 7 1/2 lengths. Then he was sidelined with bone chips for more than seven months.
“We had a setback, we gave him the time he needed, and he came back,” Cox said. “We weren’t going to run him if he wasn’t as good as he was before, and he was. He was every bit as good as he was before his layoff in the spring. And when he came back in the fall he was every bit as good.”
That was when Knicks Go won an allowance race at Keeneland by 10 1/4 lengths Oct. 4 with Joel Rosario aboard.
“Then he gave us enough confidence to look into the Breeders’ Cup,” Cox said. “We were fortunate enough to get in, and he performed extremely well. So we’ve got to hopefully see some more of that next Saturday.”
By “extremely well,” Cox means a 3 1/2-length win over Jesus’ Team, again under Rosario, in a Keeneland track record 1:33.85.
As for Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream, Cox acknowledged that the defections of Charlatan and Mucho Gusto might aid his cause.
“Those were speed horses, so if anything, that kind of maybe helps our chances. But overall, it’s a $3 million Grade 1. I’m excited to have one of the choices, and I think it’s going to be a good race.”
And this is not a time to change tactics with the frontrunner.
“We’re not going to try to do anything out of the ordinary,” Cox said. “The three starts we’ve had him, he just kind of finds himself on the lead. I expect to be there on the lead or very, very close to it. I think, if we want it, we should be able to get it. We haven’t drawn the race yet, so I don’t really know exactly how it will play out, post position and all that.”
Cox also is encouraged by having Rosario in the saddle again.
“We’ve had a lot of luck with him and horses that like to be up close with Covfefe and obviously Knicks Go and some other horses maybe not as high profile,” Cox said. “I think he’s got a good clock in his head, and he’s a good judge of pace. When you’ve got a horse that wants the front end, that’s what you’ve got to have. And he definitely gets along with the horse well and understands him, and he’s 2-for-2 on him and hopefully 3-for-3 after next Saturday.”
And Cox said Knicks Go does not take after his sire Paynter, known as an ornery horse.
“He’s pretty solid to be around,” Cox said. “He’s really aggressive training. But in the barn and in the paddock, just handling him, he’s very, very classy. So I wouldn’t say he’s ornery at all. He’s very classy to deal with as far as being in the barn, being in the stall. He’s a real classy horse. I think that’s the best word to describe him is class."