Brad Cox has an Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer on his mantle, a prize he received last month in reward for a dazzling 2020 campaign.
He won four Breeders' Cup races last year, trains a two-time champion in Monomoy Girl, and has one of the favorites next weekend in the $20 million Saudi Cup in Knicks Go.
Yet for all that recent success in a 17-year career, the 40-year-old Cox has yet to run a horse in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
But much like the addition of the Eclipse Award to his resume, the time for that bucket-list item may be on the horizon.
Aside from training Godolphin's Essential Quality, the reigning champion 2-year-old male, Cox now has a colt who very likely has enough qualifying points to start in the run for the roses after sending out Juddmonte Farms' Mandaloun to register a 1 1/4-length victory Feb. 13 in the $400,000 Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
"He's a good horse," said Cox, who also trains Smarty Jones Stakes winner Caddo River. "I really like him."
The Risen Star was the first of 16 Kentucky Derby Championship Series races and awarded Mandaloun 50 points. With 52 points to his credit, the homebred son of Into Mischief sits in an enviable position as far as the first leg of the Triple Crown is concerned. Since the current system was instituted in 2013, horses with 41 or more points have cleared the cutoff for points.
"Everyone gets excited when they have a good 3-year-old at this time of year," said Garrett O'Rourke, general manager of Juddmonte Farms.
Mandaloun certainly looked the part of a Triple Crown contender as he broke from post 10 in the field of 11 under Florent Geroux, stalked the leaders in third while racing three wide and wearing blinkers for the first time. He then surged to the lead leaving the quarter pole to turn the tables on Proxy and Midnight Bourbon, who were second and third, respectively. Four weeks earlier in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, Midnight Bourbon and Proxy were 1-2, while Mandaloun was third under the wire, a length behind the winner, after a wide trip.
"I think he got so much out of the last race in the Lecomte. For him to come back in four weeks and run a big race means a lot," Cox said. "I think the blinkers did help out. Florent immediately made a comment after the race. Much more focused in the post parade, more focused on his job. It was just like a one-inch cup, but it seems to have done the trick to get him mentally over the top, mentally getting him where he needs to be."
The Lecomte marked the lone loss in four career starts for Mandaloun. Out of the Empire Maker mare Brooch, he is the first graded stakes winner for his dam, who has produced two runners. She also has dropped yearling and 2-year-old full brothers to Mandaloun.
"He's an Into Mischief who is out of an Empire Maker mare and has a lot of the Empire Maker look in him and he has the color of Into Mischief about him," O'Rourke said. "In breeding these Empire Maker mares we had to Into Mischief, you dream about getting a horse with Into Mischief's speed and Empire Maker's stamina and it looks like Mandaloun has it. He can get out there and just keep it going."
Mandaloun was third most of the way in the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star, tracking 31-1 shot Rightandjust and Winchell Thoroughbreds' Midnight Bourbon through quarter-mile fractions of :23.65 and :48.45.
Rightandjust called it quits in the stretch as Mandaloun ($6.20) edged past Midnight Bourbon at the three-sixteenths pole and then held off a late bid by Godolphin's Proxy to complete the nine furlongs in 1:50.39 as the 2-1 favorite.
"Blinkers on was a difference-maker today for sure," Geroux said. "We knew he needed it, but he's been winning without them. He's always been a little funny down the lane. He's never given me his full potential. Today, we had the same kind of trip we had in the Lecomte, but when I pushed on the gas today, he responded right away. Last time, I feel like he wasn't giving me his best. He was a little more focused. No problem with the distance. We always thought he had the attitude and the pedigree to go farther."
Proxy, a homebred son of Tapit trained by Michael Stidham, was second, a half-length ahead of Midnight Bourbon, a Tiznow colt, in completing the all-Lecomte trifecta.
"I'm happy," Stidham said. "We all know that we're all hoping that we can be as good as we can be on a certain day [for the Kentucky Derby]. He's inching in the right direction."
The runner-up finish gave Proxy 20 qualifying point to push his total to 24, while Midnight Bourbon's 10 lifted him to 26 points for trainer Steve Asmussen.
O Besos picked up one point for finishing fourth. Senor Buscador, the 5-2 second choice, was fifth after racing wide.
While there's the possibility of another rematch among the top finishers March 20 in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, Saturday's victory puts Cox and O'Rourke in the comfortable position of being able to select Mandaloun's next race with minimal concern for picking up Kentucky Derby points.
"You want to have a horse who's good enough to run in the Derby, but it's nice to have the pressure off so you don't have to chase all the points in his last start before the Derby, which makes the next step easier to plan," O'Rourke said about having the leader in qualifying points. "This horse has made very nice incremental progress. He hasn't made a tremendous jump from one race to another. You want your horse to peak on Kentucky Derby Day and Brad so far has done a great job of taking him down that path."
It's a tricky path, but in the end it may very well be one that finally gives Cox a starter in the Kentucky Derby.