Riding High on Road to Victory

Wilmington native helps create Kentucky Derby champions.

Jen Patterson was riding ponies at age three; 30 years later, she had trained the winner of the 139th Kentucky Derby.

The last of the moon still hangs in the sky as the sun peeks over the far edge of the Fair Hill training track. Over at the clocker’s stand, trainers, owners, and onlookers gather to drink coffee, swap tall tales, and watch their horses train.

2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb steps onto the dirt track. The handsome bay colt gazes off into the distance. With a signal from exercise rider Jen Patterson, Orb starts into a jog, a gallop, then a swift breeze. 

Dressed in all black with cardinal red trim, Wilmington native Patterson balances confidently in the irons, motionless except for her arms, which move in rhythm with Orb’s stride. Her hands are quiet on the reins. Beneath her, the colt glides over the surface, contracting, then bursting forward with each stride. He thunders past just off the rail. The thud of his hooves is punctuated by blasts of heavy breathing. For the entire half-mile workout and beyond, Orb points his ears skyward, alert to morning birdsong. 

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You will find exercise riders out on the track before sun-up. They work outdoors in sun, rain and snow, on sweltering or bone-chilling days. Often anonymous, they are excellent riders with figurative clocks in their heads. Their job is to work the horse into prime fitness. They are critical to a trainer’s success.

Patterson and Shug McGaughey worked for months to bring a dead-fit Orb to the Kentucky Derby on May 2, 2013. The Hall of Fame trainer, whose horsemanship is legendary, understands that a top-class stable depends on top-class help. His barn is brimming with longtime employees.

“I like walking in and seeing familiar faces,” says McGaughey, 62, in his Kentucky drawl. “I can’t really put into words the appreciation that I’ve got for the job that Jen’s done over the past seven years, and especially the months leading up to the Derby. It’s not only her riding ability and horsemanship, but her dedication to the whole experience. Jen even kept me under control.”

By the first Saturday in May, Patterson’s four months of tireless work with Orb was complete. When the gates sprang open for the 139th Kentucky Derby, Patterson stood trackside at Churchill Downs, a bundle of nerves. Facing the frenzied crowd, she listened intently to the announcer’s call of the race. 

Orb raced toward the back of the 20-horse field over a sloppy track that resembled creamy peanut butter. Moving into the far turn, the colt picked up speed and blew past his rivals one by one. As Orb rolled down the center of the track, Patterson finally spun around just as he grabbed the lead in the deep stretch. Orb hit the wire a 2 ½-length winner, giving McGaughey his first Derby victory.

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“It was the most incredible feeling,” Patterson, 33, says. “Best word would be surreal. I ran up to Shug, gave him a big hug and shouted into his ear, ‘We did it.’ Winning it meant everything to him. He always dreamed of this day, and it finally came.”

After a difficult fourth in the Preakness and a game third in the Belmont Stakes, Orb needed a break. The colt was shipped to the Fair Hill Training Center at the northern Maryland-Chester County border. Specifically, Orb was headed to Bruce Jackson’s Equine Therapy for some good old-fashioned R&R. 

Each morning the colt enjoyed a two-hour grazing session and time in the round pen playing with his jolly ball. He also received salt water spa treatments on his legs and sessions in the pressurized hyperbaric chamber that provides horses with 100 percent oxygen to breathe, reducing inflammation, swelling, heat and pain.

Two months later Orb ran in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga—his first race in 77 days—and delivered a strong performance, finishing three-quarters of a length back in third place. Orb has career earnings of $2,612,516.

“All of our horses have done well here,” Patterson says. “There is such an easy-going feeling at Fair Hill. I’ve seen a big change in Orb. 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. It’s literally a breath of fresh air for them. These animals aren’t meant to be in a city.” 

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Sort of like Patterson. Before she was born, Duncan and Beasie Patterson picked out a pony. Jen was riding Sneeze at age 3. Hunting and show jumping were big parts of Patterson’s formative years. 

A graduate of Tower Hill School, Patterson earned a degree in business management from Gettysburg College. During school breaks she worked at Chester County steeplechase trainer Ricky Hendriks’ Fair Hill barn from age 17 until she was 24. Her first flat racing job was with Eoin Harty. When he moved his string to California, she picked up the
New York-based McGaughey job in 2006. 

Patterson says life with thoroughbreds was supposed to be a yearlong diversion at best, “to just get away from stuff.” Today she’s a key part of McGaughey’s operation. 

“Jen has a wonderful feel for each of the horses she rides,” McGaughey says. “I think her steeplechase and show jumping background really helps when working with thoroughbreds. She’s an excellent, excellent horsewoman. She kicks a lot of stuff back to me in what we’re doing. That’s a big, big help to us.” 

Patterson is not bashful in her evaluations. “I give him my opinion of how the horses are feeling, how they’re moving, where we think we might head next, from race to race,” Patterson explains. “It’s very much a team effort with Shug and me and the rest of the people in the barn.” 

One morning at Fair Hill last fall, Patterson was breezing Orb and five other McGaughey Grade-1 winners. It was Orb’s first breeze (a workout at near-race speed of 40 mph) since finishing a close third in the Travers.

“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Patterson says. “Orb’s 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.”

Orb’s bright eyes were shiny as marbles, as he grazed outside his barn. His muscles bulged, his dark bay coat glistened. He seemed every bit the happy horse. 

“We know each other very well now,” Patterson says. “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.”

Last fall Orb’s owners were making plans to buy a barn at Fair Hill. McGaughey talked to Patterson, now an assistant trainer, about managing his new division of horses, which is slated to be operational in the spring. In the colt Honor Code, the team could have another strong contender in the Kentucky Derby this month.

“Shug and the owners weren’t pushing me, but they definitely wanted it to be my gig,” Patterson reveals. “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 do here and then how they go back to the track and race pretty well.”

Patterson says she’ll miss not traveling to the racetracks where McGaughey is based, but she will continue to ride in the morning at Fair Hill. “How long I ride depends on how my body holds up,” Patterson says with a laugh. “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.”    

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