Tom Egan describes homebred Red Knight as “a gift from above” and a “comeback kid.” This may be quibbling, but the resurgent 8-year-old gelding, a gift keeps on giving, is no kid.
He is a wonderful, hard-trying horse who is defying time after holding off Grade 1 winner Gufo by a nose in a furious finish in the Sept. 10 Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes at Kentucky Downs. The victory carried a fees-paid berth in the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 5 at Keeneland Race Course.
Red Knight was largely dismissed in the Kentucky Cup Turf at 12-1, long odds that were understandable. He was making only his second start following an extended layoff for new trainer Mike Maker. The time off was the product not of an injury but a series of poor starts that suggested age and the rigors of racing might finally have caught up to him.
After Red Knight wound up sixth of seven in the John’s Call Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 25, 2021, for his sixth consecutive defeat, Egan shipped him to Grace Full Oaks Training Center in Ocala, Fla., to see if he might benefit from the hands-on care provided there by Chad Stewart and his wife, Laurie.
“When he runs a poor race, there is a reason. It’s not lack of desire,” Egan said. “Red Knight always desired to be a good racehorse.”
Stewart did not like what he saw when the multiple graded stakes winner of eight of 27 races arrived.
“When we turned him out, he wasn’t ripping and roaring,” Stewart said. “He was just blah. He wasn’t eating ferocious. He was just kind of lackluster.”
The initial plan was to turn out Red Knight for 30 days. But after Egan urged Stewart to “train the horse as if he’s yours,” the time was extended to 90 days.
“He needed an extended vacation,” Stewart said. “Especially at his age, it just takes a little more time.”
The chestnut son of Pure Prize resumed training last December. Stewart had worked with the horse during much shorter breaks in recent years. He knew what to look for — and he was not seeing it.
“When we first put him back in training, the horse was just going so-so,” he said. “All of a sudden, that corner turned, and he was getting back and really getting aggressive and training probably better than he had the previous years. He started training like a young horse again.”
Stewart phoned Egan toward mid-December and told him, “Tom, I think he wants to be a racehorse.”
When the time came for Red Knight to return to the track to begin training in earnest, Egan decided to call Maker, who has compiled an impressive resume in working with older turf runners. The horse had previously been trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott.
“You probably don’t know me, but you may know my horse,” Egan told Maker. “His name is Red Knight.”
“Oh, yes, I do,” replied Maker, recalling some tough beats. He gladly added the horse to his already powerful roster.
Red Knight received the same patient handling from Maker as he had from Stewart. He did not resume competition until July 27, when he went to the starting gate for the Colonial Cup Stakes, run at about a mile and a half at Virginia’s Colonial Downs.
The distance-loving horse was more than ready for the assignment. He prevailed under Horacio Karamanos while setting a course record of 2:29.67. It was his first victory since the Grade 3 Sycamore Stakes on Oct. 15, 2020, at Keeneland.
It also was the perfect set-up for the 1 ½-mile, Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Turf. Red Knight dropped back early under Gerardo Corrales before mounting a steady charge. He came flying five wide around the final turn to snag the lead with a furlong left, then gamely held off Gufo, the onrushing favorite.
“He’s a fighter, a tough horse,” Maker said of Red Knight after registering his fifth triumph in the race.
Egan was quick to commend Corrales. “Joel Rosario, who rode the second-place horse, is perhaps known as racing’s best finisher,” he noted. “He didn’t out finish Corrales.”
The breeder and owner also lavished the highest praise on Maker. “Mere mortals can’t look into every crevice. The real horsemen do that, and that’s what he is.”
Egan noted that Red Knight recovered quickly after the Kentucky Cup and is showing him everything he wants to see. “When Red is right, he has this look in his eye,” he said.
Red Knight’s 10th victory to go with eight second-place finishes hiked his earnings to $1,210,388. The Breeders’ Cup Turf would represent a tall order since he has never competed in a Grade 1 race before.
Still, the excitement is building for Egan. "I never thought we would have a horse to run there," he said, "so that's why it's just so incredible."
Red Knight has shown he belongs against horses that acquitted themselves well in previous Turf editions. The Breeders’ Cup would mark his third start off the layoff, an angle that delights handicappers.
Above all, Red Knight has that look in his eye again.