07/24/2007 12:00AM

Contessa aiming for new heights

Lauren J. Pomeroy/Horsephotos
Papi Chullo comes into the Whitney off a romp on Belmont Day.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Gary Contessa just enjoyed the best race meet of his professional life. On Saturday, he hopes to win the biggest race of his 23-year training career.

Fresh off his first Belmont Park trainer title, the 49-year-old Contessa will look to step into the national spotlight Saturday when he saddles Papi Chullo in the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

It has been 16 years since Contessa won a Grade 1 race - the 1991 Ashland with Do It With Style - and his participation in such events has been few and far between. The Whitney will be just Contessa's sixth appearance in a Grade 1 race since 1993.

"I haven't had many top horses, but I know what to do with them," said Contessa, who won the Belmont title with 39 wins from 273 starters. "It's just a matter of getting them into the barn."

Papi Chullo, 5, came into Contessa's barn in a unique way. Following a last-place finish in the Oaklawn Handicap, Papi Chullo was put up for sale in an auction-type format.

"A guy tells us whoever makes the best offer by Wednesday gets him, and he gave us a fax number where to send the offer," said Contessa, whose owner Steve Sigler made the offer. "We made an offer and on a Wednesday we got a call that we got him."

In mid-April, Papi Chullo vanned from Oaklawn Park to Contessa's Aqueduct stable. Contessa found a third-level allowance on May 4 at Belmont Park and told Sigler that though the horse had trained well, "don't be surprised if he's second or third."

The race scratched down to four horses and Papi Chullo rolled to a 7o1/4-length victory, running 1 1/16 miles in 1:39.89, just missing the track record of 1:39.51.

After the race, Contessa told Sigler, "We got us a racehorse here, boy."

A month later, Papi Chullo confirmed his allowance win when he overcame a slow start and rolled to a five-length victory over graded stakes winners Hesanoldsalt and A.P. Arrow in the Birdstone Stakes on Belmont Day. His Beyer Speed Figures for his last two races, 106 and 110, put him on a competitive level with some of the top handicap horses in the country.

"I think he's one of the top five horses in the country," Contessa said. "We've allowed ourselves to think he's the top horse in the country, but we still got to prove it."

Contessa was initially going to try and prove it in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap, but a foot injury shelved that idea.

"He was tender for a week or so, and I couldn't train him to come back in the Suburban," Contessa said.

Greg Norman, the previous owner of Papi Chullo, tried proving how good he thought Papi Chullo was on numerous occasions. His first 17 starts were made at 13 different tracks and he ran in four stakes races before he won a maiden race.

After finally winning a maiden race as a 3-year-old at Belmont, Papi Chullo was thrown to the wolves in the Grade 1 Haskell, where he finished sixth behind Roman Ruler.

Papi Chullo had a back injury diagnosed and was away from the races for almost a year. Off an 11-month layoff, Papi Chullo won a second-level allowance race by five lengths at Hollywood Park on July 2, 2006, running 7 1/2 furlongs in 1:27.40.

Papi Chullo ran in five consecutive graded stakes after that, losing the Longacres Mile by a neck and finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Woodward here last September. Later last fall, he won a second-level allowance race and finished second to Magna Graduate in the Queens County Handicap.

Those races caught the attention of Sigler, who was taken aback the first time he saw Papi Chullo in person.

"He is the most impressive horse I've ever seen," Sigler said back in April.

Contessa said Papi Chullo is not impressive to watch in the morning. On Sunday, he worked five furlongs in 1:03.42 at Aqueduct.

His two most recent races were impressive enough, however, to prompt the International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stable to purchase a quarter-interest in the horse since his last race.

Without a standout in the field, the Whitney could draw as many as 12 horses when entries are taken and post positions drawn Thursday morning. The post position draw could provide horsemen such as Contessa some anxious moments

"You're in big trouble if you draw an outside post unless you're a true speed horse or a stone-cold closer," Contessa said. "A horse like Papi Chullo, it would be very, very difficult, because he's a stalker He could be three or four lengths off the pace, but you're going to be five wide into the first turn."

If Papi Chullo were to draw a bad post, Contessa did not rule out the possibility of scratching and pointing to the Iselin at Monmouth Park on Aug. 18.

Regardless of whether Papi Chullo runs in the Whitney or not, Contessa believes that he will have the opportunity train more horses like him in the future.

"We're constantly buying horses," Contessa said. "We've made a big investment in young horses. Steve's been on board with every young horse I've fallen in love with. If I can keep Steve Sigler going, I'm going keep winning stakes races."