Hometown Boy

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Five months before he hoisted the Kentucky Oaks and a month before Monomoy Girl made her debut at Indiana Grand of all places, Brad Cox took a minute from his day during the break at Saratoga to answer the question of what it would be like for a kid from Louisville who dreamt about the biggest races at Churchill Downs and winning one.

Cox opined that day about what it would mean to win the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks, America’s signature races run just a few blocks from where he grew up on Evelyn Avenue. They were dreams years ago, but not impossible goals of late as Cox’s status as one of the country’s top up-and-coming trainers rose and the quality in his stable grew.

The dreams that took hold when Cox was not even a teenager came to life Friday when Monomoy Girl outslugged Wonder Gadot in front of 113,510 fans to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Oaks. Cox celebrated the win with jockey Florent Geroux and the Tapizar filly’s large ownership group that includes Michael Dubb, Sol Kumin and Stuart Grant, a long way from a young trainer in his early 20s trying to make a mark in his home state.

“I ran a couple horses in 2004 but 2005 is when I really started,” Cox said that morning at Saratoga. “I struggled, spent some winters in Louisville at the (Trackside) training center. When I stayed all winter early I was at Turfway. They had the Polytrack then so it wasn’t terrible, you could train even when it was cold.

“Eventually I got the stock where I could start traveling and went to Oaklawn in the winters. That seemed to help. That led to sending some horses to Fair Grounds and having grass horses all year picked up my business again. Things the last few years have been moving forward, growing, it’s been good.”

The last month has been particularly good for Cox, who registered his first Grade 1 win when Monomoy Girl won the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. She’s won all three of her starts this year and earned $984,200, $564,200 from the Oaks.

Cox’s stable sits at nearly $5 million in purses already this year, well on pace to pass the $8.3 million earned in 2017. Again, a significant difference from the $10,245 in purses won in 2004.

Monomoy Girl, officially a half-length winner from post 14, is Cox’s 869th winner. He also won No. 868 on the Oaks Day undercard when Will Call won the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint for owner Richard Klein. The first winner came almost 14 years ago and Cox will never forget it.

“It was my second start,” he said last August. “I started the filly at Churchill, she was 40-1 and was on the lead at the eighth pole, I thought she would win and she wound up third. I ran her back two weeks later at Turfway and she won with Joe Johnson. It was December 4, 2004 and the horse was One Lucky Storm. That was exciting.”

The Oaks proved even more exciting, especially a rough-and-tumble stretch run between Monomoy Girl and Wonder Gadot. The two fillies, who faced each other March 24 at Fair Grounds when Monomoy Girl won the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks, made contact multiple times in the lane.

John Velazquez claimed foul against the winner and stewards added to the day’s drama with a lengthy look at the stretch run.

“We were battling head and head down the stretch,” Velazquez said. “When they came out and knocked her sideways, she went back to the left lead. At least I have to take a chance on it. I mean, I’m fighting the whole way around and all of a sudden the last sixteenth of a mile she goes back to her left lead because she got bumped.”

Stewards weren’t convinced and let the result stand.

Mark Casse, trainer of the runner-up who always runs her race but is winless in her five starts this season with three seconds and four thirds, didn’t quibble much with the decision and said it was “fair.”

Walking back through the tunnel with a small group of reporters, Casse gave credit to the winner and his filly.

“I think the stewards made the right call,” he said. “To take a horse down in this type of race it has to be pretty significant and as much as I’d like to say I won I understand. I’m very proud of her, she’s definitely a winner. … She’s a tough filly. The filly that won is a super filly, too.”

Monomoy Girl came to Cox’s barn last spring, a $100,000 purchase by bloodstock agent Liz Crow and Brad Weisbord’s BSW Bloodstock. She started with a string of young horses based at Keeneland before moving to Ellis Park in July and August.

Monomoy Girl made her debut – a 3 3/4-length victory going 1 mile on the grass – at Indiana Grand the day after Labor Day. Her next start also came on the grass in an allowance-optional and she won again with Geroux aboard. Cox skipped the Keeneland fall meet with Monomoy Girl and she made her main track debut in the 1-mile Rags To Riches on the Churchill fall meet’s Opening Day card.

Cox started to think big with Monomoy Girl after she blitzed the Rags To Riches field to win by 6 1/2 lengths. He didn’t dare dream Kentucky Oaks just yet, knowing the long road between an $82,000 stakes in October and the following May. Cox, who turned 38 in March, saw enough in his days coming up to know not to get too far ahead.

“I’ve been doing it 12 years now on my own,” Cox said last summer. “Sometimes it seems like it’s been forever and sometimes it’s like no time. It’s a tough game.”

Cox was best known when he started for his longtime stint with Dallas Stewart, but his exposure to racing started well before then. His father took him to the track when he was a child and later “me and my buddies would sneak over there all the time.”

“Well, I shouldn’t say sneak. We’d go all the time for the races. All the time. I knew at an early age that I wanted to be in the business. Doing what I didn’t know, but after a while I thought I’d try to train. Like a lot of people I was a hotwalker. Believe me, I worked my way up.”

Cox’s early jobs were for Frankie Brothers and Burk Kessinger, fixtures on the Kentucky circuit.

“When I was with Frankie, I guess in ’94, I remember all those one-worded names that Claiborne had,” Cox said. “That lasted a little while and I got a little older and had to get a license, then I started working for Burk Kessinger. When I worked for him his assistant would pick me up outside the gate and they’d bring me in. I’d walk hots, rubbing horses, mostly just a summer gig to get through school.

“Working for Jimmy Baker was my first full-time job, ‘98 and ‘99, right after he had Mahogany Hall. Storm Broker was a good horse I was around. Then I went to work for Dallas for about five years before taking the jump on my own.”

Since that day he ran One Lucky Storm at Churchill Cox has racked up more than $30.8 million in purses. He’s won 26 graded stakes since 2014 and the stable ranked 15th in North America by earnings in 2016 and ninth in 2017.

Monomoy Girl’s victory in the Oaks is the obvious highlight, at least so far.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Cox said Friday as the crowd filed out of Churchill on a breezy and warm spring evening. “I’m proud of the filly, proud of the team we have put together and I’m happy for the people around me. You know, at the end of the day, I feel like I just want to make people proud of what we do and provide for these clients. And these owners, they gave us an opportunity with a great filly. We don’t want to let them down.”