Knicks Go, attempting the classic distance of a mile and a quarter for the first time, easily passed that test when, remarkably, he was allowed an uncontested lead in a contest that appeared to feature significant other early speed. He cruised through an opening quarter of a mile in 23.16 seconds. He rolled through an opening half of a mile in 46.14 seconds. He clicked off six furlongs in 1:10.04 and a mile in 1:35.28 en route to a final time of 1:59.57.
“He’s a tremendous horse. He’s a champion now. I’m just very proud of the performance today,” said Cox of last year’s Dirt Mile winner.
The other horses to win different Cup races are Zenyatta (Classic and Distaff), Beholder (Juvenile Fillies and Distaff), Stephanie’s Kitten (Juvenile Fillies Turf and Filly & Mare Turf), Secret Circle (Juvenile Sprint and Sprint) and Golden Pal (Juvenile Turf Sprint and Saturday’s Turf Sprint).
“We had a beautiful trip. He does exactly what he wants to do,” Rosario said. “I tried to save as much as I could because we had a mile and a quarter to go. But he was going easy. At the quarter pole, he just took off again. He’s just an amazing horse.”
The Maryland-bred Knicks Go prevailed for the 10th time in 24 lifetime starts, with half of those coming as Grade 1 scores. The winner’s share of $3,120,000 hiked his lifetime earnings to $8,673,135. Knicks Go placed second in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but the wheels came off as he went 0 for 8 as a 3-year-old, prompting a transfer to Cox’s barn.
Cox’s fortunes continue to soar. He won four Breeders’ Cup races last year to secure his first Eclipse Award as leading trainer in North America. He may have this year’s Kentucky Derby victor this year in current runner-up Mandaloun if Medina Spirit is disqualified for a post-race positive drug test. He saddled the Belmont and Travers winner in Essential Quality. And now Pegasus and Whitney winner Knicks Go rocketed to provide his first Classic triumph.
Cox admitted he looked on with mixed emotions since he had not one but two prime contenders. “These are like your kids,” he said. “When they face each other, it is tough to watch.”
Essential Quality, in his finale, lost for only the second time in 10 career starts. His only other defeat occurred when he lost valuable ground in the Kentucky Derby and missed by one length in fourth.
Cox expressed the hope that Essential Quality has done enough to win the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old champion. “I thought he was the leader in the clubhouse and, hopefully, that was enough,” he said.
Trainer Bob Baffert countered that a case can be made for Medina Spirit. “The winner was just too much,” Baffert said. “I’m proud of the fact that he beat those 3-year-olds. To me, he’s the best 3-year-old. He showed it today. That’s what racing is all about, proving it on the racetrack. And he proved it today that he’s the real deal.”
Most handicappers expected Medina Spirit to tackle Knicks Go early. That never materialized. “I broke slow and by the wire the first time I had to take a little hold of him,” said John Velazquez, who was aboard the runner-up. “I gave him his head around the first turn and around the second turn. He came running and kept running. Who’s the best 3-year-old now?”
Luis Saez, astride Essential Quality, noted that the race hardly unfolded as he had anticipated. “I wasn’t expecting the pace to be that slow. Everything was a mess,” he said. “I thought there was going to be a lot of pace, but the plan was to wait, sit still and make one move. But the pace was so slow, we couldn’t do anything.”
The strong Classic showing suggested that the future will be blindingly bright for Cox, who grew up in the shadow of Churchill Downs. “I don’t look in the rearview mirror much,” said the hard-driving conditioner. “There is a lot left to accomplish in this game. I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We’ve got a great team – great owners, great assistants, great help.”