Leading New York-based trainer Gary Contessa has been in the Thoroughbred horse racing game for 40 years. He started out assisting Jimmy Picou, conditioner of Willow Hour, upset winner of 1981 Travers Stakes over that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Pleasant Colony. Johnny Campo, who trained that near Triple Crown winner, was a consistent sourse of advice to the young Contessa.
Contessa led the NYRA circuit four consecutive years from 2006-2009 and his horses earned a career best of $6.3 million in 2006. He's comfortable training from maiden claimers all the way up into stakes company. He has yet to have a Derby starter, but this year his hopes rest with Rydilluc, a son of multiple grade one winner, Medaglia d'Oro, who has progressed nicely on turf with three straight impressive wins.
Rydilluc's next scheduled start is Keenland's Grade I prep, the Blue Grass Stakes on April 13. If he runs well and earns enough points, Rydilluc will not only have Contessa doing a little Derby dreaming, but he'll think…you'll have to read on to find out.
Tony Bada Bing: You've been training on your own for almost 30 years, close to 40 including your work with Frank Martin and Jimmy Picou. You've started more than 14,000 horses and won more than 2,000 of those races. This is a considerable body of work over a significant amount of time. As you think back, what's been your single, greatest thrill on the track?
Gary Contessa: No doubt about this one. 4-20-1992 Do it with Style winning the Grade One Ashland Stakes by a neck. What made it my greatest moment is that I knew in my heart she did not like the whip and on the morning of the race I decided to run her with no whip. End result she won, first filly ever to win a Grade one with no whip, Shane Sellers first Grade One and he told me "good thing you did not give me a whip because I would have surely used it".
TBB: A loss that was tough to swallow, but one that you may have learned something from and if so, what was the lesson learned?
GC: 1986 last day of the Monmouth Meet JJ Crupi and I are tied with 60 wins each for leading trainer. We both run three. I win the first two and think I am home free. Crupi wins the next two we are tied again. He and I go head to head in the last race and he wins I run second. I wanted that title so bad but it taught me patience and how tough this business can be.
TBB: If you can, use just five words to describe yourself - professionally and/or personally?
GC: Father, Husband, Spiritual, Patient, Fearless.
TBB: How does an active trainer, like yourself, maintain a balance between work and a family with early training mornings, afternoon racing and lots of weekend work?
GC: It is not easy. I try to tell everyone in my family how much I love them at least once a day and my wife ten times a day. A very lonely existence at times for me. My family lives upstate New York and I work on Long Island, Florida and Kentucky.
TBB: As you look ahead, you've got something every trainer from Emerald Downs to Monmouth Park, would love to have - a Derby contender. Is it too early to start dreaming that Rydilluc may be your first real chance to win the Kentucky Derby? Why or why not?
GC: Most of my life I have developed young talented racehorses and SOLD them. From Peace Rules to Citrus Kid to National Pride. I have bought young horses well under $100,000 36 times and sold them for high six or seven figures. This time I get a shot to keep one. Not too early to dream but too early to tell if he is a dirt horse or just turf horse. I am loving it and part of me wonders what my life would be like if I kept all the great horses I have sold.
TBB: Besides winning three in a row, his latest in the Grade 3 Palm Beach on the turf, what stands out about Rydilluc's physical presence, his running ability or his progress from two to three? When did you first get the feeling you had a potential Derby contender in your barn?
GC: I first saw him in Miami at the Palm Meadows sale in February and he was my number one. I could not rally the troops to buy him and luckily he was bought back. He reappeared in the May sale and I had to have him. Big, grand looking colt with a phenomenal stride. I was lucky my owners backed me on him.
TBB: Turf-to poly-to Derby dirt: This is the route Animal Kingdom took two years ago in winning the 137 Kentucky Derby, did such a success encourage you and Rydilluc's owners, to take this route?
GC: Absolutely. It has become a proven trip to the Derby and I say why not? One day at a time.
TBB: How is Rydilluc, today? What is your training regime for him from now until the Blue Grass Stakes and will such a plan include a work or two over the Keenland track?
GC: He will work about once a week (this Friday) on the turf at Palm Meadows with a final work at Palm Meadows about the 28th or 29th. He ships to Keeneland on April 1st to prepare for the Blue Grass on the 13th. I would say one serious work on the Poly Track around the 6th or 7th.
TBB: The NYRA circuit runs on dirt and turf, what are your feelings about synthetic surfaces - love 'em, hate 'em, or just deal with 'em?
GC: So far "Hate them" never won a race (about 5 starters) on Poly Track. Hopefully "Love em" after the Blue Grass.
TBB: Rydilluc will likely have to either win or finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes to qualify for the Derby, if or when he does this, who or what will be flashing through your head as Rydilluc makes the jog back from the Keenland finish line?
GC: If this happens I will be thinking " Holy Shit!"