Never enough time.
Cox could not wait to get his racing career started. He worked as a hotwalker at 13 before being quickly elevated to groom. He was 24 when he opened his own stable.
Now that he is at the top of the game, having won the Eclipse Award as North America’s leading trainer last season, he still fights for every minute of every day. There is always more to do.
As he prepares highly-regarded Travel Column and longshot Coach for the Longines Kentucky Oaks on Friday as well as favored Essential Quality and credible longshot Mandaloun for the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, he has little time to look back.
The present and future are too demanding.
Cox, 41, is bidding to become the first Louisville native to win the Derby, and he is attempting to do so in his debut. It would seem only natural that he would allow himself a few moments to reflect on those joyful times at Churchill Downs with his father, to remember how intensely he studied past performances as if life itself depended on what he gleaned from them.
But no. When Cox was asked if Derby week has been a time for reflection, his response was telling.
“Not a lot,” he said. “We’re busy enough with the horses we’re trying to prepare for this weekend and the other horses we have in training. It’s pretty much steady work. I’m excited about the opportunity and want to make the most of it. I don’t want to show up and be an also-ran, so we’re focused on trying to execute this weekend.”
Cox has always been about steady work. He was that way during the four years when he was a valued assistant to Dallas Stewart before he struck out on his own much earlier than most.
“He never took a day off,” Stewart said. “He knew how to get in the trenches and take care of things.”
Steady work provided the answer approximately 10 years ago when he lost a major client and found himself down to two claiming horses. He spent every waking hour turning them into winners. Years of success with quirky, problematic claimers ultimately led to his stunning success the last couple of years. High-powered owners migrate to operations with lofty winning percentages.
“We’ve been training for more than 15 years,” Cox said. “It may sound like an overnight success, but they don’t have a microphone in front of my face when I’m running in the 10th race at Turfway Park.
“It’s been a long run. We’ve paid our dues and it’s put us in this position. We’re thankful for the clientele and the help we have that has given us this opportunity.”
Cox registered his first Grade 1 victory when Monomoy Girl won the Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland in 2018. In her next start, the budding superstar took Cox to the Kentucky Oaks winner’s circle, and six months after that, she gave Cox his first Breeders’ Cup win in the Longines Distaff, also at Churchill Downs. A year later in 2019, Cox tacked on two more Breeders’ Cup scores, with Covfefe (Filly and Mare Sprint) and British Idiom (Juvenile Fillies). Then it was a record-tying four Breeders’ Cup triumphs last autumn at Keeneland with Monomoy Girl (another Longines Distaff), Essential Quality (Juvenile), Aunt Pearl (Juvenile Fillies Turf) and Knicks Go (Dirt Mile).
Cox’s earnings have risen every year since his stable generated $873,881 in 2013. Despite the pandemic, he totaled a career-best $18,983,832 from 903 starts last year, highlighted by his four Breeders’ Cup wins and another Kentucky Oaks victory with Shedaresthedevil. Voters gave Cox a commanding margin against finalists Steve Asmussen and Bob Baffert at the Eclipse Awards and he was honored as Outstanding Trainer.
“It was huge. It was something you dream of winning to establish yourself at the top end of your profession,” he said. “I’m very thankful we were able to pick that off. You dream about it and it was a dream season. We’ll see if we can execute on it and be in the race again this year.”
According to Equibase, his horses already had earned $8,798,893 through 318 starts this season. He was winning at a 26 percent clip (84 of 318) and his starters had hit the board 58 percent of the time.
Of course, there is winning and then there is winning the Derby. Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher went winless through his first 24 starters in the run for the roses. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen is bidding to end a 0-for-21 drought.
Cox has the horsepower to strike quickly. Two-year-old champion Essential Quality is flawless through five starts and hammered out a hard-fought victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland that should steel him for the test ahead. Mandaloun is eligible to improve on his head-scratching sixth-place finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. He won the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford in his race before that.
“They’re both on top of their game. They’re really doing good,” Cox said. “Anybody watching them train knows they are spot on.”
The Local Boy Made Good can feel tremendous hometown support. It only adds to his immense drive.
“You get a lot of well-wishes,” he said. “It has a little bit of a home crowd feel to it, for sure.”
For Cox, Louisville will always be home, Churchill Downs will always be home base and the Derby will always represent the Holy Grail.
“It would be the biggest thing we’ve accomplished,” he said, “and the biggest thing you can accomplish in this business.”