See why Cox has new confidence in Knicks Go ahead of Whitney

See why Cox has new confidence in Knicks Go ahead of Whitney
Photo: Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Trainer Brad Cox admits there was a time when he lost some of his confidence in Knicks Go, but his faith has been restored in the fast 5-year-old heading into the Grade 1, $1 million Whitney Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga.

Cox’s belief in his three-time Grade 1 winner was shaken when he failed to run to expectations in the June 5 Metropolitan Handicap (G1) at Belmont Park. After making the lead as he seemingly always does, he abruptly weakened. He wound up fourth, the same mediocre result he posted in the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 20.

[RELATED: Whitney analysis: Knicks Go leads elite, compact field]

“After you’ve been defeated two times in a row, you start wondering he might not be the same horse in the afternoon,” Cox said. “He certainly seemed the same horse in the mornings.”

Before that, Knicks Go, owned by the Korea Racing Authority, had been a geared-down winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland before opening the new year where he left off, with an equally convincing score in the Jan. 23 Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park for consecutive Grade 1 triumphs.

Cox thought he had a fairly ready explanation for the Saudi Arabia misadventure. It had been a relatively quick turnaround off a big effort in the Pegasus combined with an arduous ship. He did not regret the attempt – “There were $20 million reasons to try” – but he knew he probably had asked too much.

The Metropolitan Handicap?

For a time, that was a head scratcher. Then he entered the gray-roan son of Paynter in the July 2 Cornhusker Handicap (G3) at Prairie Meadows, and everything became clear. Knicks Go shot to the front and steadily put his competition in the rear-view mirror in the 1 1/8-mile, two-turn event, finishing with a whopping 10 1/4-length margin. Each of the previous two defeats had been around one turn.

“We used the Cornhusker to remind us that it is the two turns that he needs,” Cox said, “and he showed us in his last race that it was.” Knicks Go received a career-high 113 Beyer Speed Figure in the Cornhusker, according to the Daily Racing Form.

That, of course, raises the question of whether he might bounce in the 94th running of the Whitney, which offers a fees-paid berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

“There’s always a little bit of a concern with a bounce, but he’s gotten five weeks,” Cox said of the time between starts. “He’s trained well, he’s shipped up, he looks phenomenal. I’m optimistic that he’s going to run his race, and he’ll need to.”

The veteran worked three times at Ellis Park after the Cornhusker, most recently blazing five furlongs in 59.6 seconds Saturday. He was shipped to Saratoga five days ahead of the Whitney.

Knicks Go was trained by Ben Colebrook through his first two seasons. He was most impressive as a juvenile, setting the pace and drawing off in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland before hopping at the start and placing second to a game Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. He came up empty in eight starts as a 3-year-old, however, prompting the trainer change.

“He really is what a horse is supposed to be. They are supposed to get faster and stronger as they get older,” Cox said. “He’s a little bit of a throwback horse as far as accomplishing things early and then still being in training three years later.”

Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario will break from post 4 as part of a short but immensely talented five-horse field. He is listed as the 6-5 favorite on the morning line, followed closely by 8-5 Maxfield. The virtual certainty is that he will be on the engine.

“It’s a gift that he has that Joel is able to let him run within himself but very quickly, and he’s able to continue on,” said Cox, confident his burner will be hard to run down.

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