Gary Contessa's first summer in Saratoga happened in 1978 with a 12-hours-a-day job as a groom/pony boy/exercise boy/hotwalker/foreman for Jimmy Picou. The barn did not have running hot water, instead relying on a 55-gallon drum propped up on cinder blocks over a flame fueled by a propane tank.
The days were filled with hard work, excitement - and a little concern that the propane tank would explode. But he wouldn't have changed a thing.
"When you worked for Jimmy Picou you got two- or three-hundred dollars a week and you did EVERYTHING," Contessa said. "And when you got done, you vacuumed horses, polished brass, kept working. You didn't get out of there until 5 or 6 o'clock at night and you know what, we never wanted to go. We wanted to hang out in the barn all day long."
Now, Contessa trains 30 horses on the Oklahoma side, with another 30 downstate. He won nine races here last year, and set his over/under total for this season at 10.
"Opening week, I'm not going to lie, I won one and I thought I should have won three," said Contessa, who has two wins through Saturday. "The two that didn't win got claimed so that puts a damper on you, but I still think I could be in the 10 range. There are no easy races here. You put your horse in what you think is a good spot but then you see everybody else had the same thought you did."
Last Friday morning, Contessa went through his barn list with The Special's Joe Clancy and started with a predictable name.
Uncle Sigh: "Any stable tour in this barn starts with Uncle Sigh. Shortly after the (Kentucky) Derby last year he injured his back. He was in a stake at Monmouth and he was cross-entered in one here and four days before the race he gets cast in the stall at night and he was just not right in behind. We all shrug it off and think, 'We'll give him three/four days off, we'll jog him for a week, whatever.' We couldn't get him right, sent him for a scintigraphy and the only thing that lit up were the muscles in his back. We sent him home and figured three months would do it. A year later, he's back and he's training with a passion. He will run at this meet. He's got conditions. He'll be ready to run in the next (condition) book. He's exciting. He makes it easy to get up in the morning. To watch him train and train well is just great."
Modiste: "She's an Uncle Mo 2-year-old filly who ran fourth first time out in Belmont and ran with enthusiasm going 5 furlongs and you know she's going to get better with distance and she's training very well up here."
Wallydabally: "Malibu Moon colt. He's named after some sort of cartoon character that is held in a state of endearment by the guy who named him. He's training very forwardly and we like him a lot."
Turco Bravo: "He won a stakes this winter (the Stymie at Aqueduct). I don't see anything for him, but we're going to main-track-only him to death in these three-other-than, four-other-than races, money allowances, minor stakes, and one of these days it's going to rain and he's going to be hell on wheels."
Aimone: "A Lemon Drop Kid filly we ran here last year. She finished third and fractured her pastern. It's been a year and she's back. She'll run next week. She's worth waiting for."
Runway Ready: "She's in the stake on Sunday (the Caress). Five horses going 5 1/2 on the turf? I thought it was a misprint. I love that she's in. She's a second-level stake filly, a decent filly and she runs well."
Unbridled Command: "I entered him in an extra and the race didn't go. He's a little difficult to place because everything seems to be short for him. He wants to go a mile-and-a-quarter, a mile-and-three-eighths. I've run him in the New York-bred races against those killers - King Kreesa, Lubash and horses like that - and the races aren't long enough. I'm trying to get him in the three-other-than on the turf going a mile-and-three-eighths and it's up as an extra."
Paratrooper: "Cot Campbell (of Dogwood Stable) bought him privately after he won first time out. We're nominating to all the 2-year-old races, but we're pointing him toward the Saratoga Special or the With Anticipation. We're going to try and figure out if he's a dirt horse or a turf horse, but I'm impressed by him."
Steamboat Bill: "We had him in on the turf here and I don't know if 2-year-olds can read but of course he started coughing on the day of the race so we had to scratch. He's here and he's a nice, solid 2-year-old."