What’s the old adage, can’t teach an old hunting dog new tricks? This is typically sound advice, and especially true in the sport of thoroughbred racing where change is exceedingly slow.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s methods have been consistent over nearly four decades. They’ve worked well. He has conditioned four Hall of Fame horses-- unbeaten Personal Ensign, Easy Goer, Inside Information and 2013 inductee Lure. His other champions include Heavenly Prize, Queena, Rhythm, Smuggler, Storm Flag Flying and Vanlandingham. His nine Breeders’ Cup victories ties for second to only D. Wayne Lukas. He won his first Kentucky Derby with Orb last May.
Still, if you ask McGaughey, 62, he’ll say you’re never too old to learn.
After Orb’s grueling Triple Crown campaign McGaughey decided Orb was in need of some good, old fashioned R&R. In the past the trainer would have shipped the Malibu Moon colt up to the trainer’s summer base at Saratoga to prepare for the big races this fall. Instead, McGaughey shipped Orb to the Fair Hill Training Center a day after the Belmont Stakes.
“The trainers who are there-- Graham Motion, Michael Matz, Michael Trombetta, Tony Dutrow-- all speak very highly about it,” said McGaughey recently at Fair Hill. “I’m an old racetrack guy, so Fair Hill was all new to me. I never thought about shipping my horses there. But once I got there and looked around, I got it. We were in the right place. It’s been a huge change in attitude for me.”
The initial plan called for Orb to be there two weeks. The Derby champ wound up staying for more than two months. McGaughey first came to Fair Hill at the end of June. Bruce Jackson, the owner of the Equine Therapy Center, and Jenn Patterson, McGaughey’s exercise rider and assistant trainer, convinced him that Orb was doing so well he would be better off just staying there leading up to the Travers Stakes at the end of August.
"It's more of a country-type atmosphere,” the trainer noted. “Orb spent more time outside his stall than he could the racetrack. I was also thoroughly impressed by Bruce’s whole operation and his ideas on therapy. He guided me through it all and shared with me ideas on the best way for my horses to succeed. On each subsequent visit to Fair Hill I could tell Orb was a happy horse. Every time see him, I’m more pleased.”
In the $1 Million Travers Stakes at Saratoga in late August Orb was a formidable presence, finishing third by less than a length. It was the colt’s first race in 77 days. The handsome bay colt is slated to run in the Jockey Gold Cup on September 28, and the big enchilada, the $5 Million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2.
McGaughey was so sold on Fair Hill and its amenities that he sent a dozen others, including Grade-1 winners Imaging, Hungry Island Boisterous, Hymn Book, Reload, Puzzling and a few nice two-year olds. They all flourished.
The grand experiment worked so well the unassuming trainer convinced Orb’s owners (Ogden Phipps and his cousin Stuart Janney III) to purchase a barn. According to Fair Hill Training Center manager Sally Goswell, the deal will be settled at the end of the year. The newest division for McGaughey’s top-flight thoroughbreds is slated to be operational by early March.
The training center, which opened in 1983, has had its share of elite thoroughbreds over the past decade including Derby winners Barbaro, Animal Kingdom and Orb, Belmont winner Union Rags, Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now and a string of multiple stakes winners. In recent years Jackson’s therapy center has become a smart choice for horses from owners and trainers not normally stabled at Fair Hill’s 18 barns.
Each part of Jackson’s sprawling equine therapy center plays a specific role in a horse’s recovery and fitness training. Among the therapeutic treatments McGaughey’s horses utilize are the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the AquaPacer, and the cold-water spa that is one of the facility’s most popular modalities. It is used daily to treat a variety of equine injuries, including tendon sprains, ligament issues, bruised shins, foot growth in the early stages of laminitis, and for healing nasty cuts and abrasions.
“There are so many amenities, so many options for your horses at Fair Hill,” McGaughey noted. “Going there allows a horse to be a horse again. I’ve been watching how other horses do after they leave Fair Hill. They’ve run pretty good.”
Derby Dream Comes True
McGaughey started his career as a hot walker. He dropped out of the University of Mississippi in his junior year to keep his job as a groom with trainer David Carr in 1974 and later became an assistant to trainer David Whiteley. He opened his own stable in 1979 and developed his first Eclipse Award winner, champion older male Vanlandingham.
In November 1985, McGaughey was named the private trainer for renowned owner and breeder Ogden Phipps and the powerful Phipps family stable. His longtime assistant is childhood friend Buzz Tenney.
During his 27 years at the head of the Phipps stable, McGaughey has developed eight champions, including unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, and became one of the premier trainers in Breeders’ Cup history. McGaughey was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2004.
Orb was bred by and is campaigned in the partnership of Janney and Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club who carries on the family’s longstanding tradition of success at the highest levels of racing.
McGaughey has been steadfast in his philosophy of “his colt taking him to the Kentucky Derby”. He has brought two since 1989, Easy Goer (runner-up) and Saarland in 2002. Orb, by Malibu Moon out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty, is a descendant of a family cultivated by the Janneys that includes the great champion Ruffian.
On a damp afternoon at Churchill Downs Orb raced toward the back of the 20-horse field over a sloppy track. As the he hit the far turn, the colt picked up speed, and one by one, blew past his rivals. Orb stormed down the center of the track snatching the lead in deep stretch. He hit the wire a 2 ½ length winner giving McGaughey his first Derby victory.
“It was the most incredible feeling, one of the best in my whole life,” recalled Jenn Patterson, the regular exercise rider for Orb and the trainer’s other Grade-1 winners.
“Best word would be surreal. I ran up to Shug, gave him a big hug and shouted into his ear, ‘we did it.’ It meant everything to him. He always dreamed of this day and it finally came."
Patterson, a 33-year old Wilmington, Delaware native, has worked as an exercise rider for the barn for seven years and as an assistant trainer in recent years. She has played a big part in the barn’s success.
“I can’t really put into words the appreciation that I’ve got for the job that Jenn’s done over the past seven years, and especially the months leading up to the Derby,” McGaughey related.
“When she came to us, she hadn’t been galloping horses on the track that long. She was always a good rider and she’s really gotten where now she’s got a lot of confidence in herself. I think her steeplechase and show jumping background really helps when working with thoroughbreds, not only in her riding, but in her kickback. Jenn has a wonderful feel for each of the horses she rides. She throws a lot of stuff back to me that makes sense. That’s important.”
Patterson earned a degree in business management from Gettysburg College. She took a pass on joining her aunt and uncle’s catering business. The pull of galloping horses was too strong.
“Coming out of college, it’s not something I thought I would be doing,” Patterson explained outside Jackson’s barn in early September. “But working with Shug is pretty special. I’ve learned a lot. I see how patient he is, not pushing our 2-year olds. The owners feel that way, too. Yes, they’re in business, but they care about the horses.
“I’m actually pretty spoiled. I love waking up in the morning and coming to my job of working these kind of horses. Shug takes very good care of his help. I feel like I work with him, not for him. It’s a lot of fun.”
Lifetime around horses
For Patterson it all started with a pony named Sneeze. A hand-me-down from her older sister Bitsy, Jenn first climbed aboard at age three. Blind in one eye, Sneeze taught her how to ride, jump, groom at her parents’ (Duncan and Beasie Patterson) farm near Wilmington. Hunting and show jumping were big parts of her formative years.
During summer school breaks she began riding and working for Chester County steeplechase trainers Ricky Hendriks and Kathy McKenna. During that time Patterson rode flat races and on the jump circuit. She also competed over four summers as an amateur jockey at racetracks in England, France, Germany and Italy.
Patterson traveled to south Florida in 2005 for a galloping job with trainer Eoin Harty, a time she was trying to figure out her career path, in or out of the horse world. When Harty migrated to California, Patterson was offered a job in McGaughey’s Keeneland (Ky.) barn.
Patterson is not bashful in giving her boss evaluations of her horses.
“It’s not always about the clock (timing of the workout) I tell Shug how they’re feeling, how they’re moving, where we think we might head next, from race to race,” Patterson, 33, said. “I talk with Shug all the time. We definitely think alike.”
The day I visited Fair Hill, Patterson was breezing Orb and five other McGaughey Grade-1 winners that morning. It was Orb’s first breeze since finishing a close third in the Travers.
“His breeze couldn’t have gone any better,” Patterson reported. “His stride, when he’s right, is so big, and he does things so easily. He always fools me with his times when he’s right, because I just feel like we’re galloping around there. I had that feeling again this morning, which is real nice.”
Grazing outside his barn Orb’s bright eyes were shiny as marbles. His muscles bulged, his dark bay coat glistened. He seems every bit a happy horse.
“We know each other very well now,” Patterson said. “He’s grown up a lot. He’s such a smart horse and he’s really matured both mentally and physically since running in the Triple Crown races. Using the Aqua Pacer (machine) he’s put on a lot of muscle weight. He struts around the barn. His confidence is way up.”
“All of our horses have done well here,” Patterson related. “There is such an easy-going feeling. I’ve seen a big change in Orb all through the summer. He’s out of his stall five hours a day, nibbling grass, checking out the country atmosphere. His demeanor, he’s so much more relaxed. These animals aren’t meant to be in a city. Fair Hill is literally a breath of fresh air for them.”
In August McGaughey talked to Patterson about managing his new barn at Fair Hill next spring.
“Shug and the owners weren’t pushing me, but they definitely wanted it to be my gig,” Patterson noted. “I loved the idea. I think I’m ready. I’m honored that they are giving me this opportunity. I see how well our horses did here and then how they go back to the track and raced pretty well.”
Patterson says she’ll miss not traveling to the racetracks where McGaughey is based, but at Fair Hill she will continue to ride in morning.
“How long I ride depends on how my body holds up,” Patterson said. I’ve had back problems for a long time. I got taped up this morning to ride. Fortunately, I haven’t had any really serious injuries. I like to joke that the horses and I come down here for therapy time.
“I love seeing how happy the horses are at Fair Hill. Plus, I’m back home. I have been traveling the past seven years and I didn’t think I would enjoy being back here as much as I have with my family and friends. It’s all very nice. Honestly, it’s the best of both worlds.”