Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour with Gary Contessa

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Where all paths cross on the Oklahoma Training Track stands the barn housing Gary’s Contessa’s 31-horse Saratoga string for the past 15 years, but really a lifetime for the trainer. (Originally published in Aug. 6 issue of The Saratoga Special)

“I kind of grew up here,” Contessa said. “I was Jimmy Picou’s assistant many, many years ago and we were in Barn 29. Saratoga has always been my home.”

Even with another 30 horses at Belmont, Contessa is a permanent fixture at Saratoga. The trainer has signage that stays over the winter and built his 31st stall with three open walls at the end of an adjacent barn for anxious horses and overflow.

Waiting for the Oklahoma turf to open Sunday morning, the trainer walked down the shed row with The Special’s Catherine Galbraith to discuss a variety of topics and the Saratoga string.

Speed Talks: Darlene Bilinski and Harry Patten’s 2-year-old by Afleet Express debuted with fourth in maiden claimer July 25. “She ran a little green so we put some blinkers on her. I believe she’ll win the next time I run her. I was at the June sale and my phone rings and a consigner that I do a lot of business with said ‘Gary, I’m not getting any action on this filly and you need to come look at her.’ Her conformation is perfect.”

Maiden Beauty: Coming to the front of her stall for some welcomed attention, the winner of the Lynbrook Stakes and second in the Seeking The Ante last summer, 3-year-old by Revolutionary is 2-2-2 in 12 starts with $195,309 in earnings. She finished fifth in 1-mile optional Aug. 1 after a third for a $75,000 tag in 7-furlong dirt race July 17. “I opened the condition book and every single race in her condition is turf. So I said ‘you know what, let’s try it.’ Don’t give up on a horse until you try a horse on the turf once. Let’s face it, someone gave up on John Henry and put him in a claiming race and then he made millions once they put him on the turf. No matter what the horse is, you have to try the turf sooner or later. I wanted to try the turf anyway and the book had no dirt races so it was the perfect timing.”

Laser Loop: A new addition to the barn off $14,000 claim July 28 for Vedhya Jaganan, 4-year-old Smart Strike gelding is 3-for-9 with $88,107 in earnings. He broke his maiden last November at Churchill Downs and won a claiming race at Keeneland April 18. “You claim a horse and you hope they run as good as the guy before you. He seems like he’s an OK horse. We’re trying a starter on Wednesday and that might be good fit for him.”

Runaway Lute: Contessa hopes to make a race at the meet with 5-year-old son of Midnight Lute, a $77,000 buy at 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale. A multiple stakes winner with a 4-for-17 record and $321,780 in earnings, he’s been off since a second in an optional April 18 at Aqueduct. “He’s the scourge of Saratoga. Every year he comes up here and never makes the races. Never. He comes over and points for a stake, he flips over during saddling in the paddock, he does something dumb on the track. This year he comes up and gets a foot bruise. Every year I remember being sick over something happening to him. You know, he gets back to Belmont and he wins, it’s vacation.”

Red Zinger: Lerner went to $170,000 to purchase Will Take Charge colt at 2017 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale. Third and second in back-to-back allowance races at the meet July 13 and Aug. 3. “The timing is right for him to run back on the grass and he has a big chance to win if he can get in that race on the grass next time. He had a good race, very good race.”

Buxom Beast: Lee Pokoik’s 2-year-old daughter of The Big Beast finished late-running fourth in her debut in the Grade 3 Schuylerville Opening Day. A $205,000 purchase in April, she returned to the work tab Aug. 3 with half-mile breeze in :48.70 on the Oklahoma. “This is one of our highly regarded 2-year-old fillies. We got that huge rainstorm and despite all of that she ran fourth. She was coming under a full head of steam. When we ran Sippican Harbor last year, first time out she won. She came back and won the Spinaway. We’re hoping lightning strikes twice. She reminds me of Sippican Harbor. Mentally she’s amazing. When it comes to 2-year-olds, the more sane they are, the better their brain works, the better they run. She’s about as intelligent a horse that we’ve ever had.”

Kobe: The only horse in the shed with a metal screen, Bilinski and Patten’s 2-year-old by Japan leaned out of the stall looking for a chance to be naughty. He’s finished fifth and fourth in state-bred maiden special weights at the meet, July 14 and July 26. “He’s got two things going against him, the screen and the white eyeball. Over the years, I can’t think of many white eyeball horses that didn’t have some degree of psychosis. I would say it’s a well-founded rumor that white eyed are a little difficult. He can be a little difficult.”

Annie Rocks: Claimed for $32,000 at Belmont July 3, 6-year-old A. P. Warrior mare finished sixth for $62,500 tag here July 24 going 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass. “Very tough race, we had just claimed her. She’s now out of jail on her claiming price and I can run her back to about where I claimed her. She should be tough. She’s a neat, old filly. She’s been around for a long time. I really like her a lot.”

Dovey Lovey: Third in the Ruthless Stakes in late January, 3-year-old daughter of Include finished fifth for $75,000 tag going 7 furlongs on the dirt July 17. “Mr. Pokoik owns her. But she’s slowly but surely becoming a claiming horse for us. She’ll be running for claiming next week as well.”

Shandian: The dark bay was saddled and happy to take a nap before his breeze on the grass. Fifth and second in first two starts, Dennis Deeb’s and Terence Seery’s 2-year-old colt by Emcee is entered in Friday’s fourth, a 5 1/2-furlong turf maiden for New York-breds. “He’s going to work on the turf now when the track opens. He was on the lead all the way and just got caught by a horse who was the big favorite. He should be very tough, he’s very fast horse.”

Bustin To Be Loved: Recent arrival from Belmont, 3-year-old New York-bred by Bustin Stones finished third in last year’s Finny Cide Stakes here and ran in four straight stakes to finish the season. Sixth in waiver claiming race July 14. “He just came up from Belmont. He ran here one time. Led for about five-eighths of a mile. He won here last year. Just a cheaper horse that has a chance.”

Remstin: The son of Frost Giant can’t be missed with an off-centered blaze the covers most of his chestnut face. Sean Shay’s homebred stakes-placed 5-year-old gelding won $16,000 claiming race on the dirt July 3 at Belmont and fourth in 5 1/2-furlong turf allowance for state-breds here Aug. 3. “Neat-looking horse. Can’t miss him. Red Zinger was second in that race and he was fast closing fourth. He might have been the best horse in the race. He was blocked with nowhere to go, when he finally got out he came running, it was only 5 1/2 furlongs. Trying the turf was a very good idea.”

On The Good List: New York-bred 2-year-old filly by Speightstown cost DJ Stable $175,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale. She shows six works, including two on the Oklahoma July 15 and Aug. 3. “She’s up here because we are getting her ready to run. She’ll probably run here at the end of the meet. She’s a neat filly, very nice. I have to figure out turf or dirt and I always make the wrong decision.”

Sister Beauty: John Irwin spent $50,000 on 2-year-old daughter of Revolutionary at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale. She finished fifth in July 31 debut going 6 furlongs on the dirt. “We had so much success with Maiden Beauty first time out winning the stake, then we went over to the yearling sale, her full sister was in the yearling sale. She’s nice, has all the right pieces in all the right places. She had a tough trip the other day, she was a little green but she could win here. She’ll come back before the end of the meet. They are both kind, sweet, gentle.”

Ill Will: Walk by the stall quickly and you would never know daughter of Palace Malice was only two, or a filly. The Leonard Green owned 2-year-old cost $100,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale. She finished sixth in Sunday’s opener after an eighth in her debut July 21. “She’s a big sweetie and a big, good-looking filly. We call her a filly-colt because she has a colt body on her. Interesting thing, I ran her first time out five-eighths on the turf because I love running on the turf first time out. They don’t get the kickback and you find out early on in their life if they will do good on the turf. She was last, last, last and came flying and only got beat by a couple of lengths and finished fifth. So the jock gets off and says please run her back on the dirt.”

Classy Sadie: The little chestnut by Emcee looks like she escaped the yearling sale across the street, but don’t like her size fool you. Maiden winner in her second start June 20 at Belmont, 2-year-old Emcee filly finished fourth in Stillwater Stakes for New York-breds here July 18. She returned to the work tab with two turf breezes on the Oklahoma July 28 and Aug. 4. “She’s a little skinny filly, a speedball. She’s a little better on turf. She was third on the turf, won on the dirt in the slop and then ran fourth on the dirt.”

Today Comes Once: Tacked and waiting for her set to leave, the gray Cross Traffic filly can’t be missed. Gray New York-bred filly by Cross Traffic continues on the comeback trail with 5-furlong work on the Oklahoma turf Aug. 4. Off since a fourth in the Maddie May March 31, she’s worked six times at Saratoga. “This is a neat filly. She’s really nice, New York-bred 3-year-old filly who got hurt. I brought her back and she’s just coming back. She could win an other-than, she’s a good filly.”

Theitalianamerican: The big horse, literally. Monty Foss’ and John Moirano’s 2-year-old by Girolamo finished second first out in Belmont maiden May 10 then hit the board in the Tremont Stakes and Rick Violette Stakes. “Here’s the big horse. I can’t believe he made the races. He weighs 1,600 pounds and is 17 hands tall. When he gallops in the morning there’s a tsunami in Korea, such a heavy horse. Never misses an oat. He’s a talented, big gentle giant. I would never buy a 2-year-old this big because usually they don’t make the races. But I looked at his legs and said ‘my god he worked 21 and 1, if his legs look this good he’s got to be a horse that can handle his size.’ Sure enough, he’s been great. Big giant.”

Darken A Day: Sequel Racing’s and Amira Chichakly’s 2-year-old New York-bred by Emcee RNA’d at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May sale for $9,000. She finished third and fifth in maiden special weight races here July 17 and July 31. “Every trainer has something they do really well. What I do well is find inexpensive 2-year-olds that everyone misses. Since I bought for her next to nothing I gave her to my son and all my assistant trainers. They get the money on her and I train her for free. And they’re all like ‘when’s the money coming?’ My son, every day, he’s 12 years old, ‘Dad, did the money come in yet?’ ”

Another Miracle: One of the barn’s two winners at the meet, 2-year-old son of American Pharoah graduated in second start going 5 1/2 furlongs on the main track July 24. Owned by Leonard and John Green and a $210,000 yearling, he’s out of the stakes-winning Medaglia d’Oro mare Retraceable. “You think American Pharoah and you think dirt. He’s small in stature. He’s 15 hands and he’s fast. One of the most amazing stats on American Pharoah is that eight American Pharoahs have broken their maiden, but he was the only one that did it on the dirt. The other seven did it on the grass. So I’m torn to run him on the dirt. I’m torn between the turf stake and the Hopeful, which is a stretch. You’ll find out when we run him.”

Wall Eye: Aptly named New York-bred 2-year-old Quality Road filly lost one of her eyes at birth and Contessa loves the challenge of dealing with the issue. She finished sixth in maiden special weight Aug. 2 for owners Darlene Bilinksi and Harry Patten. “The reason they call her Wall Eye is because it’s like a wall. Many blind horses, the eyeball is still in there or it’s open. This one is all closed up, she was stepped on as a foal by her mother and lost her eye at birth. She’s had to deal with this her whole life. She’s a real sweetie.”