It's hard to believe trainer Gary Contessa will be sending out his first starter in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). After all, the New York-based horseman has racked up several training titles at tracks on the New York Racing Association circuit and has sent out 2,074 winners in a 30-year career.
But with 60 horses in training back in the Big Apple, Contessa has shipped to Louisville with a one-horse stable and prepares to take his shot May 3 with New York-bred Uncle Sigh.
Uncle Sigh, racing for Chip McEwen's Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson, has but one win from five starts but figured prominently in a pair of major prep races at Aqueduct Racetrack. On Feb. 1 he led before fellow New York-bred Samraat ran past for a one-length victory in the Withers Stakes (gr. III). Four weeks later, the Indian Charlie colt missed again to Samraat by a neck in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III). Off slow in the April 5 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) last time out, he ended up fifth behind Wicked Strong and his familiar rival Samraat once again—both contenders who have shipped to Louisville to contest the Run for the Roses.
Getting in his last bit of serious work April 25, Uncle Sigh went a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 over the Belmont Park training track. Two days later, since he'd never flown in a plane before, his connections opted to van him to Kentucky.
Uncle Sigh got his first look at Churchill Downs the following morning. On April 29 he jogged about two miles and then was walked up the one-mile chute where he was schooled at the gate. Contessa plans to do the same April 30.
"I was very happy with the work; I'm very confident in my horse and now it's up to him to see if he's good enough," Contessa said outside Barn 41. "He's certainly one of the ones; arguably one of the top 20 3-year-olds in the country.
"We had an opportunity to beat Samraat in the Withers; we could have beat him in the Gotham, I mean, we were right there on him. To me, Samraat is one of the horses that absolutely has a chance to win this race, so that means we do, too.
"We just didn't fare so well at the break in the Wood, but we deserve to be here," Contessa said. "If we show up with our 'A' race, we have a chance."
Uncle Sigh, a compact colt out of the Pine Bluff mare Cradlesong, was bred in New York by Milfer Farm. He was consigned by Highclere Sales to the New York-bred preferred yearling sale, where IEAH Sales Corp. sighed the ticket for $270,000. The bay colt was an RNA as 2-year-old at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale as part of Ciaran Dunne's Wavertree Stables consignment.
Uncle Sigh didn't make his first start until Dec. 7, rallying from seventh to finish second, beaten a head, in the mud. He turned heads in his second start, a 14 1/2-length romp over state-breds Dec. 27.
Then, beyond the races, Contessa and Uncle Sigh had to endure a tough winter in New York.
"We'd have a snowstorm on Monday and another one on Saturday then another one the following Tuesday and another one on Sunday," he said. "It was a barrage for three months. In 35 years in New York, I've never seen a winter like this one, training-wise.
"You constantly walked up to the line of scrimmage and called an audible. Constantly. You had to take advantage of every good opportunity. One day I called NYRA, I called the president of NYRA, and I said, 'Hey, Chris (Kay), I am not going to make the Withers if I can't work this horse. You've got to get me in between races; you have to do something for me.'
"They graded the track and Belmont and opened the track at 2 o'clock in the afternoon for me to breeze him. That was unheard of, but that's what everybody was doing to try to get through this. You have to constantly tweak everything. We galloped him that morning at Belmont, they worked on that track until 2 o'clock in the afternoon and opened it for me and we worked five eighths."
Contessa's tweaks have worked, getting Uncle Sigh under the Twin Spires. While it may be Contessa's first Derby as a trainer (he came twice in 1982-83 as an assistant), it's not his first "Derby" horse. He tried to make the Derby last year with Rydilluc, but the Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) winner didn't make the Derby field after finishing fourth in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I). More notably, he had Peace Rules as a 2-year-old in 2002 before selling him to Edmund Gann and trainer Bobby Frankel for $350,000. Peace Rules, winner of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), was third behind Funny Cide and Empire Maker in the 2003 Run for the Roses.
Funny Cide is the only New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, but Contessa doesn't feel Sackatoga Stable's gelding will be alone for long.
"There are two New York-breds in the field this year," he said. "Funny Cide was like the exception to the rule, but now that's changing. Maybe next year they'll be three or four New York-breds in the Derby. The New York-bred program, enhanced by the new purse structure, has gotten phenomenal. There is no program like it.
"I just came from the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s April sale and I paid $390,000 for a New York-bred filly. Ten years ago I would have had 10 New York-breds for $390,000. The program has certainly blossomed."
He's hoping Uncle Sigh blossoms on May 3 as well.