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Nellie Mae Cox always wanted a racehorse. Ever since she was a young girl, growing up on a farm in Cumberland County, Cox dreamed of the day she would own a Thoroughbred. She kept that dream in the back of her mind even as she married and raised three children. It wasn’t until her children were grown that she decided to buy a half-interest in a 2-year-old racehorse. It was the late 1980s—and in a stroke of luck, the horse won its first race and was claimed. If a horse runs in a claiming race, it can be bought for a specific amount of money. Cox had found her niche. “Of course I was hooked,” she recalls.
She started small, buying a few horses to race, then expanded her vision. She began purchasing weanlings to sell as yearlings, a practice called pinhooking. That in turn led her to buy broodmares. By 1988, her true passion had emerged: breeding Thoroughbred racehorses. It’s a huge business—some 36,000 Thoroughbred foals are born every year in the U.S.—and Cox is a bit player in the industry, producing on average 10 to 12 foals a year. But each is important to her. “You can’t help but fall in love with them all,” she says.
Today, Cox, 67, runs her operation out of two farms—her family farm, Greenfield in Cumberland County, and Rose Retreat Farm in Goochland County, where she lives with husband Bobby. Once the foals are born, they live for a year at Greenfield with their mothers. When the horses are ready to be weaned, they are moved to Rose Retreat, where they begin their education. For the next year, under the direction of farm manager and licensed trainer Larry Dixon, the horses are groomed, fed and prepped for the annual yearling sale at Keeneland, the world’s premier Thoroughbred auction. In 2007, buyers there spent a record $340 million on more than 3,000 yearlings.
“It’s amazing to see how [the horses] change over a year,” says Cox, sitting at her kitchen table on a cold winter afternoon. A fire crackles nearby, and her table is scattered with press clippings. Racing is on the big-screen in the next room. “They become mannerly, trusting and gorgeous. You can see that they are ready mentally and physically for a job.”
Cox keeps track of her horses as they go on to racing careers around the country. If she can’t get to the race in person, she watches it on television. “There’s a story behind every horse, [and] that includes the breeder, owner, trainer, jockey, groom … the hopes and dreams that make it very special,” she says. “There’s nothing more thrilling than seeing your horse come down the homestretch in front.”
Thanks to her keen eye, knowledge of bloodlines and instincts, Cox has experienced the thrill of victory many times over. She has bred many stakes winners, the most prominent being a little horse named Showing Up. In 2006, Showing Up had a stellar year that brought Cox to prominence. Thanks to Showing Up’s total earnings that year of more than $1.6 million, Thoroughbred Times, a trade publication, ranked Cox as the sport’s second leading breeder in North American starts.
Even when Showing Up was a foal, Cox knew he was a really nice horse. At the Keeneland sale in 2004, he sold for $82,000. Cox immediately suffered from seller’s remorse. In November of 2005, trainer Barclay Tagg (who trained 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide) became enamored of Showing Up and bought him for Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who also owned a promising 2-year-old named Barbaro.
As 2006 unfolded, Showing Up proved that he was indeed a really nice horse. He had two impressive wins in Florida in February, breaking the track record at Gulfstream Park for the mile. He then won the Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and earned a slot as one of 20 horses in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, Cox had made plans to attend the Kentucky Derby that year for the first time in her life. It wasn’t until two weeks before the race that she learned Showing Up would be running. She would get to see him run in person, in America’s most prestigious race. At one point early in the race, Barbaro and Showing Up were running side by side. Barbaro went on to win and Showing Up finished sixth, but it was a moment Cox will never forget. “Going into the paddock at the Derby and seeing the horse I raised was incredible.”
After the Derby, Showing Up came home to race at Colonial Downs at the $1 million Colonial Turf Cup Stakes in June. Though he had never before raced on turf, Showing Up came from behind to win by three and one-quarter lengths and broke the track record. Cox was there with her family and employees to cheer him down the homestretch. Also there were the Jacksons, who invited Cox down to the winner’s circle. “They are lovely people who have let me be a part of his career,” says Cox.
After his victory in Virginia, Showing Up won the Secretariat Stakes in Chicago and the Hollywood Derby in California, catapulting Cox up to the second spot in the breeder rankings. The number one breeder in 2006? Roy and Gretchen Jackson and Lael Stables, with earnings of more than $2.3 million. Their leading earner? The now-deceased Barbaro. Cox hopes that Showing Up helped to allay some the Jacksons’ sorrow during the difficult time following Barbaro’s devastating leg injury at the Preakness.
Now 5 years old, Showing Up will probably be retired from racing and stand at stud. Barclay Tagg, the Funny Cide trainer who will have horses in this year’s derby, calls Showing Up “a superior horse, the best horse I’ve ever trained and my favorite horse of all time.”
Cox has had many other good horses. Flying Yolanda was her first stakes winner at Colonial Downs. Gimmeawink is a six-time stakes winner, with earnings of more than $500,000, and was the Champion 3-Year-Old Turf Horse in 2003. Related to Showing Up, he now stands at stud in Ocala, Florida. Be Gentle won 11 of 14 starts and was the 2003 Virginia Bred Horse of the Year and the Champion Virginia Bred 2-Year-Old Filly of the Year. “Many people never breed a stakes winner,” says Cox. “I’ve been extremely fortunate.”
For Cox, racing is a family passion. She and her husband routinely take their children, Lisa, Robin and Barbee, and seven grandchildren, to Colonial Downs. Cox also appreciates the role that horse and breeding farms play in sustaining the local economy and preserving rural, open green space. “Racing is a beautiful, gorgeous sport,” she says, “and horses are marvelous athletes.”
So how do you know when you’ve got a champion on your hands? As Cox admits with a grin, “They don’t look at you and say I’m the one!” But, she adds, “the good ones will lay everything on the line to win for you.
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Nellie Mae Cox
Originally published June 2008