By Bill Finley
“Inside the Winner's Circle, Presented by Keeneland” is a series showcasing graduates of the Keeneland September sale who have gone on to achieve success on racing's biggest stages.
When Covfefe (Into Mischief) arrived at Brad Cox's barn at the Fair Grounds to begin training for her 2019 campaign, the trainer could have circled just about any race on his calendar. He had a talented, fast, well-bred filly and might have entertained thoughts of trying the GI Kentucky Oaks. But what makes Cox one of the fastest rising stars in his profession is that he knows his horses, their strengths, their weaknesses, and which races to point for. Way back on Feb. 17, Covfefe had her first work of the year, a three-furlong breeze at the Fair Grounds, and Cox soon thereafter circled August 3 on his calendar. His plan was to do whatever it took to win the GI Longines Test S. at Saratoga.
“From day one, when she came to New Orleans, the goal was to get her to the Test,” he said. “It's a tremendous, important race and we really wanted to win it. The idea was to have her as good as she could possibly be on that day.”
It's not often that things work out that way in the roller-coaster world that is horse racing, but for Cox and the owners, LNJ Foxwoods, the 2017 Keeneland September graduate acted like she was in on the plan. Winning her first Grade I race, she outgamed GI Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in the stretch to win by a half-length under Joel Rosario. Bellafina (Quality Road) was third. All three were entered in the 2017 Keeneland September sale.
Covfefe was consigned by Gainesway Farm, was bred Helen Alexander and sold for $150,000.
When she entered the sale, the Gainesway team was confident they might be selling a future star.
“All I can say is Helen Alexander breeds some of the best race horses year after year, year in and year out, including Grade I winners,” said Gainesway's director of sales Brian Graves. “We're just fortunate to sell them for her. She gets all the credit. She was a medium-sized filly, perfectly balanced, and she looked like she would be razor sharp.”
Cox was already impressed before Covfefe ran her first race, an easy maiden win in September at Churchill Downs.
“This filly, from day one, from the first time we breezed her it was like, 'Wow, she is special.'” Cox said. “I can't say I knew she'd win a Grade I win but I knew this was an extremely fast filly. The McKathans broke her and thought a lot of her. There have always been a lot of expectations with her. She has a tremendous pedigree. She's just freaky fast, and that's the bottom line.”
After the maiden win, Cox tried the GI Frizette S. at Belmont, which is run at a mile. Though he's not convinced Covfefe is just a sprinter, he found out that day that maybe he had asked too much of her distance-wise as she finished fourth. The connections put her away for the winter and didn't bring her back until an April 6 allowance race at Keeneland, which she won by a half-length. But it was in her next start, the GIII Ms. Preakness S. that she first served notice that she was among the fastest three-year-old fillies in training. She won the May 17 race by 8 ½ lengths and recorded a 107 Beyer figure.
Yet, as always seems to happen in horse racing, there was a bump in the road.
In her last prep for the Test, Covfefe was entered against older horses in the Roxelana Stakes at Churchill Downs. Sent off at 2-5, she got hooked up in a speed duel with Mia Mischief (Into Mischief), a Grade I winner, and lost the battle. She finished third and her Beyer number tumbled to an 84.
Cox wasn't worried.
“The Roxelana was a very tough set up for her,” he said. “She was down on the inside and pressed by a very nice filly who she sat right on the outside of her. The track was kind of drying out that day. I don't want to use that as an excuse, but they went extremely fast early, there's that long stretch at Churchill and she was beaten by an older filly who is a Grade I winner. In the end, everything still worked out.”
If Cox had any reservations about the Roxelana loss, they were erased when Covfefe had two outstanding workouts at Churchill Downs in preparation for the race. He came to Saratoga glowing with confidence. He had done his job. Covfefe was peaking at the exact time he wanted her to peak.
The biggest problem this time would be the level of competition. Serengeti is a Grade I winner, Bellafina is a three-time Grade I winner and Chad Brown had an undefeated filly in Royal Charlotte (Cairo Prince) who looked like she had yet to reach her potential. There was also the matter of another possible pace meltdown. Serengeti Empress has as much early foot as Covfefe has and drew the rail.
“The public made Bellfina the favorite and Royal Charlotte the second choice, and I think that's because they figured my filly and Serengeti Empress would get caught up in a speed duel,” Cox said.
Serengeti Empress did get the lead, but Rosario was in no hurry to go after her. He sat a length off the pace, which went in 22, 44 1/5 and got by her rival inside the final furlong.
The main goal from her will be the GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, and Cox said he has not picked out Covfefe's next race. But it's not out of the question that some day we might find out what she can do beyond seven furlongs. Her second dam is Aurora, who has produced GI Juddmonte Spinster S. winner Acoma, GI Super Derby winner Arch and GIII Godolphin Mile winner Festival of Light. The first dam is Antics (Unbridled), whose best offspring prior to Covfefe was Albiano (Harlan's Holiday), a Grade III winner at nine furlongs in Japan.
“It wouldn't surprise me if this filly were able to win at longer distances,” Graves said. “But neither am I surprised she's so good sprinting. Basing this on her second dam, when they come from a family like that and are a good physical specimen like she is, they usually can get it done.”
But that's nothing Cox needs to worry about for now. He had one race in mind all along that he wanted to win and he got the job done. For his clients, he has developed a very good horse, who has made a lot of money and will someday be a very valuable broodmare.
The game isn't always that easy.