It takes quite a display of ability to get the collected Shug McGaughey to give in to gushing. Exhibit A: his Kentucky Derby-winning charge Orb, who has inspired countless superlatives during his development.
As the Hall of Fame trainer extolled the virtues of his protégé the morning after his classic win, he still saved some of his most adulatory adjectives for the figures within his shedrow who long ago proved themselves exceptional.
"My appreciation for it all ... is through the roof for what they've been able to do and sacrifices they've made," McGaughey said.
The names Buzzy Tenney, Jennifer Patterson and Robbie Medina won't show up on the past performances detailing the progress of any of the horses in McGaughey's care. Such anonymity is part of the deal when one signs up for one of the many supportive roles needed in order for a racehorse to achieve a modicum of success.
While Orb's Kentucky Derby triumph has been held up as the ultimate example of McGaughey's horsemanship, the man himself has repeatedly pointed to his staff as equally deserving of the influx of recognition he has received.
Among the many testaments to McGaughey's skill and character is that his barn is filled with grooms, hotwalkers, riders and assistants that have been with him for years and, in many cases, decades — few as appreciated as the aforementioned trio.
Friends since their childhood days in Lexington, Tenney has been McGaughey's No. 1 assistant since the latter was hired as the Phipps family's private trainer in 1985. Eighteen years ago this month, Chicago native Medina asked Tenney for a job with the McGaughey shedrow and has become one of the head assistants himself.
A fixture since joining the McGaughey crew in the Spring of 2007, exercise rider Patterson is often among the first to detect which horse has breakout potential or when something is off about a particular animal.
"A lot of these people go over and beyond," McGaughey said "And that means a lot to a guy like me."
If it is hard to imagine McGaughey's operation without Tenney in it, it's because the two Lexington natives have been bouncing thoughts off one another since being in the same Cub Scouts group.
"We've literally known each other our whole lives," said Tenney, a Henry Clay alumnus.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1973, Tenney spent four years working with his father in the business world before rejecting that as his ultimate career path.
In September 1977, armed with admittedly zero experience working with horses, Tenney approached Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock about a possible job with the storied operation. Four and a half years into his time with Claiborne, where he did everything from foaling mares to breaking yearlings, Tenney decided to go with trainer Steve Penrod to Aiken to help oversee a group of 2-year-olds one winter.
It was at that point Tenney fell hard and fast for life at the racetrack. And when McGaughey needed a right-hand man to help him with the Phipps runners, his old golf buddy was first in line.
"Shug expects a lot out of everybody that he surrounded himself with ... and I expect a lot out of Shug in return," Tenney said. "He's good to work for, and he takes good care of his horses and he does a great job with them.
"Even though he never won the Derby until May 4, he never has deviated from what his beliefs are."
Tenney was one of the first figures to jump on the track the night Personal Ensign, one several future Hall of Famers conditioned by McGaughey, caught Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors at the wire in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff to end her career a perfect 13-for-13.
And though he watched this year's Kentucky Derby from his living room in New York where he was overseeing the McGaughey barn at Belmont Park, Orb managed to do the impossible and overtake Personal Ensign on Tenney's list of personal achievements.
"Personal Ensign, that was the highlight of my racing career — up until this past Saturday," Tenney said.
In hindsight, the outcome of this year's Kentucky Derby was written all over Patterson's face days before the race was run.
Each morning as Orb would come off the Churchill Downs strip from his training, Patterson would be beaming in the saddle — the result of what her hands, legs and seat were telling her was on tap.
"He's a very powerful horse and he's just so well balanced," Patterson said of Orb. "So if he's just kind of flopping around there, then I kind of know something is not right with him."
Input from 32-year-old Patterson is as treasured a commodity as any in the McGaughey barn. A lifelong horsewoman who formerly worked for trainer Eoin Harty before her desire to remain on the East Coast led her to join McGaughey, Patterson made multiple trips to Payson Park in Florida this spring to make sure she was aboard for Orb's works — just the latest time the Delaware native had devoted herself to developing one of the barn's best.
"I don't think I'd be standing here if it wasn't for her. She's given me everything that any human being can give you to try and make things right," McGaughey said of Patterson.
Added Patterson, "It's a honor, actually, to work for Shug. He doesn't make you feel like you're working for him, he makes you feel like everyone works together. That's what makes it fun."
Funky cold Medina
Seven days out from Orb's slated run in the Preakness Stakes, Medina was in Saratoga Springs checking on what the McGaughey crew hopes is the next generation of top runners.
"I usually just deal with the babies in the spring and summer and then with the older horses at Payson in the winter," Medina said. "I'm very lucky to deal with the horses I deal with, and have Shug trust me."
Raised by a racetrack family around Hawthorne Race Course, Medina's extensive backstretch knowledge and open personality have made him a natural fit in the McGaughey barn.
Having previously worked for New York-based trainer Angel Penna Jr., Medina joined the McGaughey staff in 1995 when he ran into a friend of his at Belmont. The friend informed him McGaughey was looking for more help. Shortly after Medina approached Tenney about a position, he was part of a team that would saddle future Hall of Famer Inside Information to victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont that October.
Medina was also right there with McGaughey when the barn brought Saarland up to the 2002 Kentucky Derby only to finish 10th. Just as McGaughey was willing to wait 11 more years for a horse like Orb to tell him to return, Medina credits the barn's success to McGaughey's regard for everyone involved in the process.
"That's what makes him what he is. He'll listen to something a hotwalker has to tell him about a horse," Medina said. "This winter I had Orb, (four-time Grade I winner) Point of Entry, a really deep stable and I would talk to Shug twice at the most during the course of the day. He values (your input) and he's the easiest guy to deal with when something goes wrong."
When: 6:20 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore
Possible field: Orb, Departing, Mylute, Goldencents, Govenor Charlie, Itsmyluckyday, Oxbow, Titletown Five, Will Take Charge, Vyjack
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.