Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Bisha Finds Belonging Starting Cox’s Future Stars by Tom Pedulla|11.22.202102.01.2022|8:51pm1:56am Eleven years ago, Tessa Bisha needed to get away from racing. She was 27 years old and she found herself at a crossroads. She had majored in communications at California Polytechnic University Pomona without completing her degree. She had embarked on the itinerant lifestyle of many race trackers, working as an exercise rider for Bob Hess, Jr., D. Wayne Lukas, Jerry Hollendorfer and Anthony Dutrow, Jr. It was Dutrow who made Bisha lift up her head from the daily grind by challenging her with a question. “Why do you come here every day and do this and work so hard at it?” Dutrow asked. For sure, it was not about money. Bisha had been forced to take assorted part-time gigs to meet financial obligations. The gambling aspect had never interested her beyond the $2 she and her father, Jon, used to wager on races at Emerald Downs. Ambition? She was not driven to become a trainer. “The why, I think I lost track of it a little bit,” said Bisha. The “why” became an anguishing question when A Little Warm, Dutrow's 2010 Jim Dandy winner and a horse she had drawn particularly close to, fractured both front ankles during a routine gallop. Although the horse was saved, the frightening injuries only added to the doubts of a young woman struggling to find her way. Thoughts of the damage suffered by A Little Warm haunted her more than other breakdowns she had witnessed. “The hardest part is always the fact that they're doing this because we're asking them to,” Bisha said. “Even though it's natural for them to run, we're the ones placing them on the racetrack that day and saying, 'Go ahead, do it buddy.' The good ones always want to and they'll run through pain and they're the ones who will get hurt.” With the help of a $5,000 inheritance from her grandmother, Eloise, she retreated to her home state of Washington, to be with her father and other loved ones. She set up an apartment in the basement of her father's house and spent a long winter there, contemplating where she has been and where she was going. In a sense, she retraced her steps, talking to many of the people who had been influential when she was getting started. “She was still every day trying to figure out where she belonged with a horse career,” Jon said. “She wasn't thinking, 'Oh, maybe I'll go back and study accounting or something like that.'” Bisha had experienced such extreme emotions with A Little Warm, the absolute thrill of watching him give his all to win a major race at Saratoga before that burning desire nearly contributed to his demise. She was still young – but no longer naïve. “I'd kind of seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “And everything in between.” Another question was added to Dutrow's. Did success have to come at the expense of hard-trying horses? Did it have to be one or the other? “You can care about both. You can care about winning and you can care about the horses themselves,” her father said. “I think that kind of turned the corner for her.” Bisha took care of unfinished business by completing her degree at Cal Poly Pomona. She returned to Hollendorfer to gallop for him while the goal of becoming an assistant trainer gradually came into focus. Tessa Bisha and Darain She moved to Kentucky to pursue a romantic relationship that ultimately failed while a promising business relationship developed. She began to work for Brad Cox as a freelance exercise rider in the spring of 2016 and became increasingly important to his growing operation. She was able to catch on to a rising star when he hired her as an assistant. “I saw that he himself was going up and it would be a good move job security-wise and probably a better financial position than other assistant jobs,” Bisha said. Cox, of course, swept four Breeders' Cup races last season in winning his first Eclipse Award as the outstanding trainer in North America. His success this year includes Breeders' Cup Classic winner Knicks Go, Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Essential Quality and Mandaloun, runner-up in the controversial Kentucky Derby. Bisha was a finalist for the Dedication to Racing Award, sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Jorje Abrego, Dustin Dugas and Ricky Giannini are other highly-regarded assistants in Cox's massive, high-powered operation. “He really puts an effort into being hands on but also trusts his eyes on the ground,” Bisha said. “The way he manages the team, it just couldn't be any better.” Cox entrusts what has annually become a large and promising 2-year-old class to Bisha. “She plays a huge role in our operation,” he said. “She does a lot with the young horses we get in. She's very patient with them. She's an all-around horseperson.” In her current role, she never needs to ask “why” she does what she does. She relishes her position, eagerly waiting to see what each well-bred prospect might become. Is there a Derby winner in the bunch? “They all get attention and care and the best chance they can to turn into the best possible version of themselves,” Bisha said. Jon, once a concerned father, no longer worries. “I think she feels like she is doing what she was always supposed to do,” he said contentedly.