By now, trainer Brad Cox is tired of "the question." Sure, the Louisville native who has racked up more than 860 wins and meet titles from Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots to this spring's Keeneland stand seeks higher acclaim. What trainer wouldn't?
Cox's backstory—growing up close enough to Churchill Downs to smell the action—has put the onus on him regarding the River City's two big events, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).
At 38 and without a Derby or Oaks starter to his credit—yet—it already appears a burden.
"It's exciting, sure, but it's business first," Cox said from his office in Barn 25. "It's our job to get these horses to the races first. We're not doing it any other way."
Cox got a brief sniff of the roses in 2016 with Dazzling Gem, who finished third in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) but was on the outside looking in on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard that year.
In a quick two seasons, Cox has become the hunted, not the hunter, for the Oaks. He'll saddle three of the 14 fillies in the $1 million race, with the majority of attention focused on 2-1 morning-line choice Monomoy Girl.
A daughter of Tapizar , Monomoy Girl is a neck shy of being unbeaten in six starts, has a stakes win over the track, and was an easy winner last time out in the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1). For the Oaks, she'll have to overcome the outside post.
On the rail is the Cox-trained Sassy Sienna, a daughter of Midshipman who is getting good at the right time. She was a nose better than the solid Wonder Gadot April 13 in Oaklawn Park's Fantasy Stakes (G3) and is a 15-1 chance in the Oaks.
The Cox-trained Kelly's Humor, a closing second going about seven furlongs in Keeneland's Beaumont Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (G3), fills the trifecta at odds of 30-1.
As a teen, Cox walked hots for Churchill-based trainer Jinks Fires. After graduating high school, he worked for trainer Jimmy Baker and later Dallas Stewart. Cox took out his trainer's license in 2004. One of his early clients was the Louisville-based breeder/owners family of Bertram, Elaine, and Richard Klein.
"He was with Dallas, and we were with trainer Steve Flint," said Richard Klein. "Our barns were next to each other. I liked Brad and told him whenever he was going out on his own, we'll give him a couple of horses."
Their first win together was a $5,000 maiden-claiming race with Ruby Ruby Doo at Turfway Park in February of 2005. While Cox went on to train privately for Midwest Thoroughbreds—twice—he eventually went back to running a public stable, where Klein was waiting. He now has 10 horses with Cox.
"He knows his horses," Klein said. "He trains horses to be racehorses. He's quick to tell you if the horse has any ability or not. He doesn't want to see an owner waste a lot of money and put a lot of expense into him.
"To see the success he's having now shows the hard work he's put in. He's the next up-and-coming trainer around here."
Following his second stint with Midwest, Cox was down to a handful of horses in the fall of 2014. He didn't stray from the playbook, continuing to work hard as he rebuilt his client base.
"Organization is the key to all of this," Cox said. "Attention to detail. If you have a barn full of horses, there is always something that could be tightened up somewhere.
"You have to be meticulous and find what you need for each individual horse, and that's what it comes down to."
With some 100 horses in training, organization is as key as having the right help. While Cox currently tends to his barn in Louisville, he has Jorje Abrego with him at the Downs, Ricky Giannini handling the chores at Indiana Grand, Tessa Bisha with his horses still at Keeneland, and Dustin Dugan with his string in New York.
Cox's client base grew through people like respected horseman Pete Bradley. Liz Crow was part of Bradley's team but has since gone on to be a partner in BSW Bloodstock.
Crow purchased some yearlings for owner Sol Kumin at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale. One of those was Monomoy Girl, a $100,000 filly out of the Henny Hughes mare Drumette. She was sent to trainer Paul Sharp near Ocala, Fla., where she was just part of the pack.
"Liz liked her; Paul liked her," Cox said. "I went to see her in March of her 2-year-old year in Ocala, and I thought she was in an awkward stage. I remember Sol called and asked what I thought of the group and to rank them. Looking back, I think I had her fifth of seven. She was very immature at the time."
Once Monomoy Girl got to his barn at Keeneland, she "had some speed, but not sprinter speed." Then she debuted on the turf at Indiana Grand Race Course going a mile in September and won by 3 3/4 lengths.
"She kept getting better and better," Cox said.
In her third start, Churchill's one-mile Rags to Riches Stakes in late October, Monomoy Girl drew off by 6 1/2 lengths. The Nov. 25 Golden Rod Stakes (G2) was her lone defeat; she fell a neck short as the 4-5 favorite after lugging out in the lane.
Scores in Fair Grounds' Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) and the Ashland mark the striking chestnut as the Oaks favorite. Expect a crowd in the paddock as her ownership ranks have expanded beyond Kumin's Monomoy Stables to include Michael Dubb, Stuart Grant's The Elkstone Group, and Michael Caruso's Bethlehem Stables.
Cox will also have added pressure with the growing ownership ranks around Sassy Sienna. China Horse Club jumped in last week, taking a 50% stake to join with Medallion Racing, Jerry McClanahan and Sandra Lazaruk. Zayat Stables, who raced her in her first six starts, has climbed back in with a minority slice.
Sassy Sienna, bred by Chip Montgomery's Haymarket Farm, was a $65,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase in 2016 by Zayat Stables via Patrice Miller/EQB. She got her early training with the McKathan Brothers in Florida.
"She is a good-moving filly," Cox said. "We thought a lot of her from the start and knew she'd want two turns. She's not missed a beat. She's run almost every 30 days and has been in training the whole time and gives what she's got every time.
"She's doing everything right, and her coat is fantastic."
As for Dawn and Ike Thrash's Kelly's Humor, Cox liked her last breeze and will see if she can improve upon her come-from-behind effort in the one-turn Beaumont.
By Midnight Lute , Kelly's Humor was a $35,000 pick at the 2016 Ocala Breeders' Sales August yearling sale from the Stuart Morris consignment.
With three in the Oaks, Cox will feel some heat to deliver in one of the biggest races on the calendar. He won't be nervous in the paddock, but he reserves the right to be nervous watching the race.
"The only time I get nervous is when I leg the rider up … and then it's out of my hands," he said. "I've done everything I can do."