Mitole: A Memento to Ed Cox

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Ed Cox with Craig Perret and Mark Hennig | Photos by Z

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When a horseman as seasoned as Bill Landes ventures the possibility that Mitole may be the fastest Thoroughbred ever raised at Hermitage Farm, it is time to hang onto our hats.

Hermitage, after all, first sent up a yearling to auction in 1937; and Landes himself has been there since 1977. The man who hired him, Warner L. Jones Jr., had bred Dark Star, the only horse ever to beat Native Dancer; while in his own time Landes, named Ted Bates Farm Manager of the Year in 2017, has handled animals as resonant as Woodman, Northern Trick, world-record yearling Seattle Dancer and, more recently, West Coast (Flatter).

Those of us fearing that we might be getting carried away by Mitole, then, can be grateful for an authentic depth of perspective from Landes as the horse prepares for the GI Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day.

But Landes can also furnish a different kind of balance, our recent examination of Mitole's Grade I breakthrough on the Derby undercard having largely focused on the premature exile to Japan of his sire, Eskendereya (Giant's Causeway). For Mitole's rise actually evokes a far more grievous loss, in the death only this spring of a man saluted by Landes as the pre-eminent small breeder in America.

Again, Landes makes that judgement advisedly. Yet little of the evidence available in its support was summoned by reports of the passing of Edward A. Cox Jr. in March. The giddy progress of a colt Cox sold for just $20,000, as a yearling, provides a happy cue to redress that omission.

Let's start at the end; at the dispersal of his stock, starting at Keeneland last September. Because that brought with it a memory Landes will always hold dear. Maybe a year ago now Cox had called him, and told him he was a sick man. He needed to get everything straight, for his extremely large and loving family. His longstanding associate Seth Hancock would handle the dispersal. So Landes and his team performed their last, poignant service for Cox with all their usual professionalism, prepping the weanlings and mares before sending them over to the sales team at Claiborne for November.

“And Ed flew down from Chicago, with his brother John and son John, and took his usual seat at the absolute back of the pavilion,” Landes recalls of Cox's final visit to the sales, in September. “That was his spot for years, he called it the gunfighter's position. Nobody could come up behind and, as it's in the dark, nobody could know when he was bidding. So he set up there and, during the course of that afternoon he had us all come by for a chat and a picture.”

Bill Harrigan, Anthony Stroud, Landes: each knew Cox's exacting standards, and his fidelity. Then, in November, they watched as 20 head of horse realised $3.7 million, headlined by the $725,000 given for a Pulpit half-sister to Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}), in foal to Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie).

“It was sad, because we knew how this was going to end,” Landes says. “But we still we had one weanling left over. He'd just been a little behind, a little immature. Christmas time, January, Ed still sounded pretty good. But he said: 'Landes, get him sold.' Because he wanted to clean things up for his family. Of all things, an Oxbow colt out of Indian Miss.”

Indian Miss. Time to wind back the clock. Because this was actually this was the second time Cox had broken up his stable.

The seeds of his Turf career had been sown on honeymoon, in 1960, when Cox and his young wife Rose stopped in Louisville. Landes believes that it was there and then that their paths crossed with Warner Jones.

“Ed was a dealer in commodities,” explains Landes. “And these guys are gamblers. They're gambling on rain, they're gambling on drought. Ed told me one day how his college professor had taught him the most valuable lesson of his life: that purchasing one bushel of corn can control 10 bushels of corn, through the options process.

“And all those guys on the Chicago Board of Trade, when they weren't trading soya beans, they were running horses against each other. People like Gene Cashman, who owned Elocutionist [winner of the 1973 Preakness]. That's when Arlington was really something. Mr. Jones used to train in Chicago himself, so he hooked Ed up with one of the old-time trainers up there, Joe Bollero, and they had a lot of success.”

Cox joined a glittering roster of Hermitage boarding clients in the 1980s, with the likes of Joe Allen, John Schiff, Craig Singer and David Reynolds; and Jones steered his matings towards Claiborne, having learned the trade alongside Bull Hancock when both were sent to Europe as young men.

As Jones did not want to be responsible for the sale of yearling boarders, he also introduced Cox to the father of the sales prep business, Lee Eaton. So the Hermitage team would get the weanlings through the winter, and in springtime van them over to Eaton. Landes remembers in 1987 loading up a Danzig colt Cox had bred from a mare by Hoist The Flag.

“We had these old trailers,” recalls Landes. “And there was about a six- or eight-inch gap to the ramp. And of course this colt had to pop his foot right in there. I just about died. I think the van companies have changed their alignment since that day.”

Luckily the colt was patched up okay for the July Sale, where Sheikh Mohammed bought him for $900,000. As Shaadi, he proceeded to become one of the best milers of his generation in Europe.

That same spring, Cox's next crop had included a Conquistador Cielo colt, the first foal of a Vice Regent mare he had bought from E.P. Taylor.

“Her name was Regent's Walk, and I'll never forget the day she came off the van,” Landes says. “It was a cold winter day but that might have been the most stunning horse I ever saw. I just thought, 'Wow!' Big, rangy, there wasn't a whole lot of femininity about her. And that first foal, he taped out at 130, 140 lbs. It's a very inexact science, I know, but ever since that has always been my standard. Because when you weigh a new foal out at that level, chances are good things follow.”

They certainly did in his case. After starting his racing career in England, Marquetry returned to win Grade Is at four, five and six.

Danzig and Conquistador Cielo, as covers, typified the relationship Cox had developed with Claiborne; and indeed in 1984 he had partnered with the farm–along with Peter Brant and William Haggin Perry–in its tragic homebred champion Swale (Seattle Slew). But it was with Jones that Cox co-bred perhaps his most significant horse, in Woodman.

Out of the Buckpasser mare Playmate, a sister to Numbered Account purchased from Ogden Phipps, Woodman made $3 million as a yearling at the 1984 July Sale. He showed enough brilliance in a brief career to ride the crest of the commercial wave for his sire Mr Prospector and, despite champion runners either side of the ocean, perhaps achieved his most lasting impact as broodmare sire of More Than Ready.

Though he had his brains trust–Seth Hancock, and Stroud, and Harrigan who broke the young horses, and of course Landes himself–Cox knew his mind.

“I think most of those guys on the Chicago Board of Trade, back in the day, were their own man!” says Landes with a laugh. “Make no mistake, Ed picked his mares out. When it came to buying into families, that was him. He had an affinity and great respect for Phipps mares, though in retrospect he didn't buy that many; whereas he did buy quite a few from Windfields. And while Anthony [Stroud] had influence, with the stallions, Ed made all his own mating decisions.

“He'd love to get me and Anthony to his hotel during the September Sale and have a back-and-forth. He'd love to get us engaged, and he would defer to us on conformation. But Ed would make his own opinion. For every 10 stallions I would identify for him, he would maybe bite on one or two. My 'attaboy' was when he said: 'You got that one right, Bill.' And that was rare!”

In 1998–and Landes never really figured out why–Cox “pretty well got the heck out” of the business. Even Classy Cathy (Private Account) went, a triple Grade I winner, for $725,000. (She turns up as fourth dam of GI Florida Derby winner Audible (Into Mischief).) And that appeared to be that. Landes had meanwhile stayed on at Hermitage to manage the farm for Carl Pollard, following the death of Jones in 1994. And one day in late 2006, Cox telephoned out of the blue. Hermitage's neighbours at Longfield had just failed to sell a couple of mares at Keeneland November, and Cox had bought them privately.

“He just couldn't stand not being part of the action,” says Landes affectionately. “And there he was on the phone, saying, 'I bought these mares next door, will you go over and get them?' And I said, 'Well, hell yeah.'”

The Cox revival was highlighted by his purchase, for $350,000 at Keeneland in November 2008, of a weanling half-sister by Giant's Causeway to Medaglia d'Oro, whose first crop had just set out and would produce the next Horse of the Year in Rachel Alexandra. Naples Bay went on to render herself still more valuable with two graded stakes wins for Christophe Clement, and made $3.6 million from M.V. Magnier when sold in foal to War Front in 2014.

A less conspicuous chapter in the renascence had seen Cox send Landes to the 2008 January Sale, for Glacken's Gal (Smoke Glacken), winner of her only two starts. She was out of a Silver Deputy mare named Lady Diplomat, whose yearling daughter Cox had bought the previous September.

Cox sent Glacken's Girl to Indian Charlie, and the resulting filly to veteran Chicago trainer James DeVito.

“She ran a couple of times and showed a little bit of talent, but then developed a chip in her knee,” Landes says. “So Ed retired her, and she was there for the taking at $10,000. But the best bid he could get was $5,000, there was a bunch of agents who wouldn't come up with the money. So he kept her.”

Mitole is her second foal. Buried in the September Sale as Hip 2520, he was picked out by Chestnut Valley Farm for $20,000-even though Glacken's Girl has since produced GII winner Live Lively (Medaglia d'Oro)–and was pinhooked through Grassroots Training & Sales for $140,000 to William and Corinne Heiligbrodt's East Hickman Bloodstock at OBS April.

Like so many good ones, Mitole never really drew attention to himself on the farm. “He was not spectacular but there was just never anything wrong with him,” recalls Landes. “One day he was with his mother in a 40-acre field, with about eight other mares and their foals, and by the fence. And I just stood back and looked at him and I said, 'You know, there is nothing wrong with this horse.' But Ed had enough horses he needed to sell, and didn't like to keep colts.”

The ongoing bloom of Mitole is obviously all the more poignant, given the subsequent dispersal of the stable and then Cox's passing days before the birth of his 39th grandchild.

“His kids came down to Churchill to see Mitole's race,” Landes says. “They shed a tear, and took great pride. Their dad, oh my God, he would not brag. He was very quiet, would just take personal satisfaction in what he produced. And whenever he said to me, 'Landes, you raised a good horse,' that meant more to me than anything. Because he'd also let you know when you screwed up!”

Landes admits that he was surprised when Cox declared that Indian Miss would go to Eskendereya. “But like I said, he was his own man,” he reflects. “He was very loyal: with Anthony, with Hermitage. When he made his comeback, he could have gone to 100 different farms. But he was a demanding person, too. Not in any kind of negative way. Just that there were very few bases on balls, to use a baseball phrase he favoured. You gave him your word, and you did the best you could for him. And when he was playful, there never was a more fun person I'd rather talk to. The phrases he had. He would call me up at the end of the day, when I was tired and done, and he'd say, 'Landes, you sound lower than whales**t in the ocean!'”

Landes did his very best to maximize the dispersal, pushing the boat out to get Indian Miss to Into Mischief, albeit on a very late cover. As such, she turns out to have been extremely well bought by WinStar at $240,000.

And that last remnant of the stable, sold as a short yearling? The Oxbow colt out of Indian Miss? He made $17,000 to Erickson Equine.

“Bob Feld ended up buying him from Jim Herbener's consignment at Fasig-Tipton February,” Landes says. “And I think that little bugger's going to turn out. When we took him over the sale grounds, you could see he was heading the right way. The Felds made a very astute purchase, and now they have a half to a Grade I winner.

“I'm proud of Mitole, as another Grade I winner for our farm, with 30 or 40 foals a year. But for him to have been bred by Ed Cox, shoot, that means a lot to me. So I'd love for him to go and be all he can be.”

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