By Brian Skirka | 01/09/2010 02:54 PM ET
Locally-based trainer Gary Contessa trains hundreds of horses and has been the leading trainer in New York for four consecutive years.
His stables are home to everything from bottom-priced claimers to high-priced stakes horses, but it’s a recent maiden winner who has him talking Kentucky Derby.
After saddling Eightyfiveinafifty to a 17 ¼-length maiden win over the inner track in this past Saturday’s second race, Contessa says he has a case of Derby fever.
And he’s made it perfectly clear that his horse isn’t going anywhere.
“After thinking about it for three or four days, I made a decision that might be debated, but I’ve decided to leave him in New York,” Contessa said. “He’ll run in the [$100,000] Whirlaway [on February 6] and then the [Grade 3, $250,000] Gotham [on March 6] and we’ll see from there. He loves the inner dirt, trains on it, and has a huge home track advantage.”
Contessa was very confident leading up to Eightyfiveinafifty’s most recent race following a very solid career debut this summer at Saratoga Race Course where he finished 4 ¼ lengths behind next-out Grade 1 winner, Dublin.
“His race on Saturday was exactly what I expected – an overpowering performance,” Contessa said. “I said before the race that he was a Derby horse. When you race a Derby horse in a maiden race in the dead of winter at Aqueduct, he’s supposed to win like that.”
Eightfiveinafifty’s final time of 1:10.86 was far and away the fastest six-furlong race of the weekend. Excluding claiming races, there were five other six-furlong events run Saturday and Sunday including three maiden special weights, one allowance, and one stakes race. The average final time for those five races was 1:13.83, nearly three seconds slower than Eightyfiveinafifty ran.
The 3-year-old son of Forest Camp earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure for his efforts – the highest figure by any horse in the country so far in 2010.
The main question now: Will Eightyfiveinafifty get two turns?
“Horses prove trainers wrong all the time,” Contessa said. “But I would bet that this horse will get two turns. Watching him in the mornings, I get the impression that he’ll run all day – he never gets enough. When he’s done galloping in the morning, it’s all the rider can do to pull him up. If I breeze him five-eighths, it’s at least a mile before he gets pulled up. He has a lot of gears.”
For Contessa, a master of the claiming game in New York, not only is Eightyfiveinafifty his hope at reaching his first Kentucky Derby, he could be the horse of a lifetime.
“He is the best horse I’ve ever trained,” Contessa admitted. “I said that even before he ran. I’ve won Grade 1’s and Grade 2’s, but this horse is the most talented horse I’ve had. Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll be the greatest horse I’ve trained – he has to achieve his greatness. A big part of being a great horse is staying sound, and that’s the most important thing we’re trying to do – keep him sound. If we can do that, I really think he will far eclipse any horse I’ve trained in terms of achievements.”