Time for the game face

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Robbie Medina knows for absolute certain he’ll be pumped up as he goes through his normal routine Saturday. Of course Saturday is not a normal day and Medina is no ordinary guy in a run-of-the-mill role.

If you’ve been watching racing this year, either at Gulfstream Park or Keeneland Race Course, you know Medina. Or at least you’ve seen him. He’s the guy you see in the paddock or winner’s circle with Shug McGaughey’s horses. McGaughey’s main assistant when the Hall of Famer is in Florida and Kentucky. Decked out in a dress shirt and tie. He’s presentable, professional and businesslike.

And oh yes, he’s the one with the game face on.

Medina’s been that way for a long time, or at least as far back as the spring of 1995, when he started with McGaughey. Born a stone’s throw from Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne Race Course, the child of racetracker parents and a huge sports fan, Medina probably got instilled with a competitive streak in the womb. He’s stayed that way into adulthood, working for one of the sport’s best trainers and becoming friends with the uber-competitive Bill Parcells. Medina knows no other way. Especially on raceday.

Raceday this weekend is like no other, with the 139th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. McGaughey sends out Florida Derby winner Orb, seeking his first win in America’s great race as the 7-2 morning-line favorite in the field of 20 that entered Wednesday.

Medina is pumped. Really pumped. And it’s not your Knute Rockne rah-rah locker-room type pumped.

“I’m going to be pretty zoned in,” Medina said Wednesday, shortly after schooling Orb for the second time in the paddock at Churchill. “This horse, you don’t ever want to be too confident, but this horse gives you such a confident vibe. I just want to get in the starting gate and see what happens. He’s going to run his race. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. And if he does it’s going to be pretty exciting.”

And the game face?

“I probably wouldn’t say hi to my own dad if he was in the paddock. If I saw him and he waved, I’d keep on truckin’.”

Medina’s been down this road before, making the trip to the 2002 Derby the last time McGaughey competed in the race. Saarland finished 10th that day as War Emblem coasted to a front-running win.

Medina was at Churchill five years before that, rubbing odds-on Kentucky Oaks favorite Glitter Woman and helping look after Derby hopeful Accelerator. Glitter Woman chipped a knee and finished eighth in the Oaks. Accelerator broke a pastern a week earlier.

“She was 4-5 in the Oaks and basically hurt her knee in the race,” Medina said of Glitter Woman. “I’ll never forget because after the race, and after we had Accelerator go down, too, Shug asked me if I wanted to leave tomorrow on the van. I said, ‘get me the hell out of here.’ Shug said, ‘you and me both.’ But we have had some luck here, and we’ve had some bad luck here. Hopefully old luck throws us a bone on Saturday.”

Unlike Saarland’s road to the Derby, which was slowed by races being unable to fill in Florida and a displaced soft palate that required surgery after the Wood Memorial, Orb’s path to Churchill was the complete opposite.

The Malibu Moon colt won all three of his starts at Gulfstream, including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. He thrived at Payson Park, where Medina oversaw a string that gave McGaughey 12 of his 14 winners at Gulfstream. The group included Point of Entry, who takes on Wise Dan in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes on the Derby undercard. Many of those same runners and Medina went to Keeneland, where they continued to click and won six more races.

Medina says he feels almost spoiled by the run of good fortune of late, but he’s not about to trade places with anyone.

“I’d say the last five or six years we’d have the occasional really nice horse, but the rest were just average type horses,” Medina said. “The last year and a half, we look down the shedrow and man, there’s some nice horses.

“Take Point of Entry. I told Shug before he ran against [and beat] Animal Kingdom, ‘this might be the best horse we’ll ever be around.’ Shug said ‘I don’t disagree with you.’ He’s unique because he can run a mile against the best horses in the world and a mile and a half against the best horses in the world. I know it’s the Derby, but those two in the Woodford Reserve are as good as it gets. I hope we have enough energy after that race to go up there with Orb. We could be emotionally drained. I might need some Gatorade.”

And if the outcome of the Woodford Reserve, or dare say it, the Kentucky Derby, go in favor of Point of Entry and Orb, anyone near Medina after the finish could be in need of a sling.

He may not dish out a lot of high fives, but when you’re on the receiving end of one you’ll know it.

“I just get really pumped up,” Medina says with a laugh. “After the Florida Derby, and as you can see my girth size is pretty big these days, I didn’t even eat after race. I couldn’t sleep I was so excited.

“Everyone says they don’t get Derby fever. They’re the biggest liars on earth. He didn’t gallop out and get to the winner’s circle and all I could think about was the Derby. I don’t have Derby fever, I have Derby pneumonia.”

Orb didn’t always give Medina those symptoms, however.

He was with him last spring and early summer at Saratoga Race Course. He didn’t do anything great and didn’t do anything wrong. Medina said Orb’s breezes were “average, but he was never really tested.”

Orb stayed in Saratoga when Medina and some of the string went down to Belmont Park for the Spa meet and it was during that time when things started to tick upward. Orb breezed well, impressing longtime McGaughey exericise rider Lena Lorileu when he outworked longtime workmate Secret Bid in a move out of the gate.

“A lot of people say the know they had a Derby horse in May and all that,” Medina said. “I’m not sure about all that. I do know that he was just one of 12 babies we had up there that we liked.

“This is all kind of unexpected. Not that we didn’t think he was good. But if somebody told Shug and I on January 1 that we’ll be running this colt in the Kentucky Derby we would both look at each other and say, ‘yeah right.’ He’s come a long way in a short time. After the Florida Derby I could see it in Shug. We’ve been fortunate to see him a lot and I see that look on his face that I haven’t seen. It’s that look of ‘this one might be the one to get me there.’ “