Feb 24 2014

Meet Buzzy Tenney – Hard Working, Always Smiling

Buzzy Tenney Smiling

Buzzy Tenney

Buzzy Tenney is the long-time Assistant Trainer to Hall of Fame Head Trainer Shug McGaughey.  In 2013, he was a member of the team that won the Kentucky Derby with a horse named Orb.  If there is a friendlier person in all of horse racing … I can’t imagine it.

During a recent visit to the backside at Gulfstream Park, Buzzy sat down with me and shared his story.  From getting started in the business with no prior horse experience to winning his very first Kentucky Derby last year, Buzzy is a shining example of a hard-working horseman, who has learned his trade from the ground up and continues to practice it on a daily basis.

You’re a native of Kentucky, right?

Grew up in Lexington, born and raised.  Went to school in Mississippi at Ole Miss and then I went to work with my father for four years in the business world, in the finance business … and I decided it just wasn’t for me.  I didn’t like the people particularly, for whatever reason. And I didn’t like being indoors.  But my father couldn’t have been any nicer, or any better to me than he was.  It wasn’t anything like that.  It just wasn’t for me.

I knew when I couldn’t wait for Friday afternoon to get there, and I was dreading Monday morning, that something wasn’t right.  I was single and didn’t have any commitments to anyone except myself.  I knew Seth Hancock (Claiborne Farm) a bit from when I was growing up.  And I loved to go to the races at Keeneland.  So, I went over and talked to Seth.

Did you have any horse knowledge when you went to see Seth?

No, went over there with a coat and tie, in my Datsun 280z.  He said, “I’ll give you a chance.  But, you’ll have to take a big cut in pay from working with your father.  And, you’ll have to work 6 ½ days a week.”  I said, “That’s ok, just give me a chance.”  He was nice enough to do it, and I had no experience whatsoever.  I didn’t know the difference between hay and straw at the time.  I never looked back.  Never wanted to look back.  I’ve been a lucky, lucky guy … really, my whole life.

Every time I see you over at Gulfstream Park, you’re always smiling.  Is that a result of winning the Kentucky Derby (in 2013) or is that just who you are?

That’s pretty much me.  But, you know, winning the Derby never hurts anything.  That makes you have a pretty good year right in itself.  But, no that’s just my nature. I really enjoy what I do, I love what I do.  That’s just the way I am.

After winning the Kentucky Derby, is your life different today than it was a year ago?

No, not at all.  It’s basically the same.  I like to play golf in my spare time.  And I like to play the public courses around Long Island.  Invariably I’ll play with some guys that I’ve never met before, and the first question they ask you, after they find out that you work with horses, “Have you ever won The Derby?”  And, I always had to say “No.”  But now, I can tell them “Yes, as a matter of fact, I have won The Derby!”

It was a great thrill to be a small part of the whole operation, and something I can check off my bucket list of things you hope happens before it’s all over with.  (But now) I get up at the same time as last year, before we won the Derby, and get done at the same time at night.  So, basically, it hasn’t changed at all, except for the self satisfaction of being a part of it.

Anyone offer to pay for your greens fees now that you’ve won the Derby?

No, they want me to go in and buy them a drink after we play!

Can you describe a typical day for you?

Buzzy at GP

Buzzy at Gulfstream

It starts between 5:00 and 5:30. We usually have 5 or 6 sets that go out to the track.  We’ll get through that and then we’ll feed (lunch) at 10:30.  We school (walk over to the track) a lot of horses before they run, so we’ll school in the morning before they run.  So, that gets you to around noon.  If we don’t have anything running early then we’ll have a break and come back at 2:30 for our afternoon work (e.g. walking the horses, standing them out in the sunshine, or breezing them in NY).

And, then we’ll have the 4:00 feed in their stalls.  Most of them are done within an hour or so.  Then I’ll make my rounds around the barn and check how much is left in their feed tub, make a mental note of that.  Then I’ll start planning for the sets the next day, what horses are going to go out at what times.  Our riders pretty much stay with the horses they’ve been assigned to.   Shug will mark the training book.  He’ll mark breeze or maybe hand walk.  And we’ll set it out so that the grooms can take a look at it and get an idea of what their morning is going to be like.

I’ve read that the first sign of problems with a horse is when they’re not eating right. Is that what you’re looking for when checking the feed tubs?

Exactly.  But, not all horses eat the same.  So, you check to see if maybe they’ve left an inordinate amount of feed.  Maybe there is a problem in their mouth, like a tooth problem.  Or maybe their stomach is bothering them some.  If they’ve left a lot we might take their temperature to make sure there isn’t some kind of virus getting ready to hit them.  But, if they’ve left the same amount as the night before, and before that, then it’s ok.

Is there much difference in the behavior or care of a filly versus a colt?  For example, do they eat differently?

Most fillies don’t eat as much as colts do.  Fillies can be a bit temperamental, and colts can be a bit studdish at times.  But, we’re lucky.  Most of these horses have a lot of class to them.  They’ve been bred and raised the right way, they’ve been handled the right way, so when we get them they don’t really have any bad habits.  Every once in awhile you’re going to find a colt that’s a little bit rough to handle. But you find a groom that can handle a horse like that.  Or maybe you’ve got a filly that’s high strung.  So, we’ve got a groom or two that maybe is a little bit more patient with a horse.  We’ll place them with somebody that’s got the right experience.

Do you ever use any young jockeys?

Dylan Davis has ridden a couple for us down here.  And he rode good races too. [Footnote: Subsequent to our talk, Dylan won his first race for the Shug McGaughey stable on February 1st aboard Ragtime.]

You spend a lot of time at Belmont Park, how does it compare to other places?

It always amazes me, I’ll go to my dentist or my doctor back in NY and they’ll ask what I do, and I’ll say well, I work with horses.  They look at you like you’ve got two heads.  They’ve never been to Belmont Park.  They might think it’s a petting zoo or something.  It’s amazing to me.  People in Lexington, they pretty much know.  At one time or another, they’ve probably been to Keeneland.  But, it’s a whole different mind set (in NY) than what I grew up with around Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

What are your thoughts on Synthetic surfaces like the one at Keeneland?

The synthetics, I’m just not a big fan of it.  Statistics say it’s a bit safer, but I think other problems come up.  But, that’s probably me just being old and a traditionalist.  But, we do run horses at Keeneland.  We’ve got a lot of grass horses, and they seem to take to the synthetic, most of them anyway.  So, if a race comes off the turf, they’ll run.

How common is it that a horse can run effectively on multiple surfaces?



It’s pretty unusual.  Off the top of my head, well … I mean Lure (who was a Grass Champion) could run on the dirt.  He set a track record his first start as a 2-year old going 5/8 (on the dirt) if I remember right.  If you had to run him on the dirt, he’d have been pretty effective.  He beat Devil His Due in the Gotham over at Aqueduct (dirt).

Lure, to me, was as good a horse as has ever been down this shed row.  He was wonderful, he was a beautiful horse.  He had all that speed, and it was come and catch me.  He was controllable, but you had to come get him.

[Footnote: Lure was one of my all-time favorite horses, which is why I had a photo of him from many years ago. In 25 career starts, he was 1st or 2nd in 22 of those races, with 14 wins. He also won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup races in the Turf Mile.]

How do you mentally prepare for all of the ups and downs in this business?

Me personally; you know how they say to cut off the top of the mountain and fill in the pits with it.  In our business if you lose 4 out of 5 then you’re in the Hall of Fame.  So, we’re going to lose more than win.  Maybe you run a great 2nd, and to me that’s about like winning.  For us that have been around, it’s not that you don’t care … certainly you do care, it just doesn’t bother you as much after 30 or 40 years of getting beat 80% of the time.

And, what about when bad things happen to a horse on the track?

You know, that’s the other side of our game.  And that’s the tough side.  You know, getting beat is one thing, but when one of them gets hurt … that’s the tough part.  We’re at the barn hours and hours every day, 7 days a week, and these horses are almost family like … some of them we probably do consider like our own pets.  When they get hurt, it’s hard to stomach.  That gets me down sometimes. If they get beat, well we’ll try it again in another 3-4 weeks. I can take that. But when of them gets hurt, and very bad, that’s the gut wrencher.

But, when they retire, and they retire sound, you’re happy for them.  You hate to see them go, but you’re happy for them.  In a sense, it should be a happy thing because they’re going home, they’re sound, and life has just turned in a different direction.  They’ll be romping around in the fields, with their buddies and friends.  One day I put Orb on the van to go to Claiborne.  The next day I put Point of Entry on the van.  There’s two pretty nice horses within 24 hours you know.  They’re hard to replace, those kind.

Do you have any thoughts on how to attract new people to the sport?

You know one thing that I’ve always thought works against getting new people in here is – they go to the race track, maybe they lose $100, and they leave with a sour taste in their mouth. And this raising the admission … to get into Belmont Park especially … to me that is the total opposite of what they should be doing.  I think they ought to beg them to come in there, get them in free, give them a program, give them a voucher for a hot dog, or bottle of water, or a beer.  Just to get them started off in a pleasant type of way.  But this charging them more money makes no sense at all, when you’ve got nobody going anyway.

In a few months you’ll be getting your babies (2yr olds).  When is it time to bring a young horse to the race track for the first time?

Shug Eyeing a Young One

Shug McGaughey (eyeballing a young one)

Well, of course the physical fitness is a big part of it.  But, Shug I think pays closer attention to the mental aspect of it. If they’re a bit too aggressive in the morning, or isn’t handling his breezes good enough, he’ll back right down on them. He’s not trying to get them there as fast as he can.  He’s trying to get them there the right way.

Most of ours need a race.  We don’t have that many first time starters win. Shug is thinking down the road more than today, especially with the young horses.  Have them nice and settled, have them fit, have them ready to run … but being very cautious at the same time. Don’t take one over that isn’t acting right, or isn’t ready to run.

You’ve been with Shug for 28 years. Did you ever think about going out on your own?

Oh, sure, I had some chances. People would come up and have a small number of horses, but things were always going well here.  And, I didn’t see a need to make a change as long as everything was going well with my family and my job.  Kenny Noe had pursued me to become a steward for NYRA when an opening came up about 15 years ago.  I gave that some serious thought, but decided not to.

I enjoy my work here, and I’ve been with Shug for a long time.  We kind of understand each other, and we’ve had a lot of good days.  I could probably have gone on my own, and I wouldn’t have to spend as much time around the barn, but as long as I was having fun I didn’t see a need to change.

As I said at the start, it’s hard to imagine someone friendlier in all of horse racing than Buzzy Tenney. From his warm smile, to his humble attitude, to his dedication to Shug and his horses … Buzzy represents everything that is right about this sport. And, if I have a chance to play golf with him someday … I will buy him a drink after we play!

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By Neal Benoit

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5 comments on “Meet Buzzy Tenney – Hard Working, Always Smiling

  1. Great article on Buzzy. He is the consummate gentleman. I grew up with him and we used to play a little golf together. He is a wonderful horseman and you know that the horses he takes care of are in good hands. He and Shug make a wonderful team.

  2. Buzzy was a fraternity brother of mine. I have not seen him in almost 40 years, but I can tell everybody back at Ole Miss he was the same kind, happy guy that he apparently is today. I’d love to see him again

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