03/08/2002 12:00AM

Contessa always makes room for statebreds

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It's not like Gary Contessa goes around wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "I Love New York-breds" in bold letters, but the trainer sure isn't knocking statebreds.

"I've always said New York-breds are like ATM machines: Every time you run them, they bring home money," Contessa said.

New York-breds make up a quarter of Contessa's 40-horse stable at Aqueduct, where he leads the standings heading into the final day of the inner track meet on Sunday. This spring and summer, Contessa expects the arrival of more New York-breds whom he purchased earlier this year and last.

A 44-year-old native of Long Island, Contessa said New York-breds hold a special attraction for him for several reasons, including their earnings potential. New York-bred purses at New York Racing Association tracks are on a level playing field with open races. For example, this winter at Aqueduct, a maiden statebred race for 3-year-old fillies offered the same purse as an open maiden race for fillies, $42,000.

On top of the restricted overnight purses and the $2.3 million earmarked for New York-bred stakes at NYRA this year, there are lucrative owner, breeder, and stallion owner awards attached to the statebred program that further enhance the earnings potential of a New York-bred.

Since saddling his first winner at Monmouth Park in 1985, Contessa, has trained many New York-bred stakes winners, including Go Mikey Go, Long Distance, She Rides Tonite, and Undaunted Mettle.

Contessa, who trains for more than two dozen owners, said he oftens steers new clients in the direction of New York-breds because he believes it's a safe way to get an owner's feet wet in the business.

"It's a safe acquisition and a way for owners to make money," Contessa said. "An average statebred who goes through his conditions and wins races [in restricted company] will make $100,000. An above-average New York-bred can run with any horse on the grounds. It's a very handy thing to have statebreds."

Contessa said when he scouts New York-breds at sales, he rarely places emphasis on pedigrees, which these days can be pretty fancy with the improved quality of the New York stallion base plus a steady stream of mares being bred to out-of-state stallions.

"I try to close my eyes to pedigrees and look at horses as athletes," Contessa said. "I would like people to think Gary Contessa gives more bang for their buck by buying athletes who help make their own pedigrees."

Contessa does favor one sire who stands in New York, Mighty Magee. Contessa's own mare, La Dee Dotsy, is in foal to Mighty Magee, who stands at Waldorf Farm in North Chatham. Mighty Magee, a son of leading New York sire Cormorant who is now pensioned, has sired a slew of winners from his first two crops to reach the races.

Mighty Magee stands for Dr. Jerry Bilinski, the owner or Waldforf Farm. Bilinski, a veterinarian, has several New York-breds in training with Contessa.

Another client with New York-breds in Contessa's care is singer David Cassidy, who is active as a breeder and a buyer. One of Cassidy's current runners, Snoopy Blues, a 3-year-old son of the late and highly successful New York sire Cure the Blues, won a maiden race at Aqueduct in January.

"Look at David, he lives in Las Vegas but knows the value of New York-breds," Contessa said.

Contessa is very high on one particular 3-year-old New York-bred in his barn: Sherm, who made a stunning debut at Aqueduct on Jan. 30. Sherm, a son of New York sire A. P Jet, won a restricted maiden race by 15 1/2 lengths for West Point Stable.

Sherm is entered Sunday at Aqueduct in a first-level allowance race for New York-breds at six furlongs.

"I think Sherm is really good and doesn't need to be a New York-bred, but it's a wonderful thing he is," Contessa said.

Contessa said that the success of New York-bred stakes winners such as Gander, Critical Eye, and Say Florida Sandy, combined with the sale of million-dollar New York-breds at auction, reflects a change in how they are regarded in the marketplace.

"The mentality is gone that New York-breds are junk," Contessa said.

Contessa recently embarked on a New York-bred venture with Tom Daly, the president of Canterbury Racing Stables, a Thoroughbred partnership company. Contessa will train the New York-breds he selects at 2-year-old sales in Florida and Maryland.

"We looking for six to eight quality New York-breds to pick out," Contessa said. "We're looking at $50,000 per horse, so that should put us in the ballpark to buy some pretty nice New York-breds."

Last October on behalf of Star Track Farms, the father-and-son team of Marshall and Peter Winston, Contessa bought 11 New York-bred yearlings at Fasig-Tipton's Eastern fall yearling sale in Timonium, Md.

Among the horses purchased by Contessa for the Winstons was a $32,500 colt by New York sire Rodeo, who will be represented by his first crop of runners to reach the track this year.

Until the 2-year-olds are ready to race, the Winstons are keeping active with Mrs Bigshot and Tempest Gladiator, a pair of New York-breds who were winners at Aqueduct this winter.

"We only do New York-breds," said Peter Winston, 34, who owns Megatech, a company that manufactures high-tech toys that are sold by outlets like FAO Schwarz and Sharper Image. "We started kicking it up and buying even more at auctions because the New York-bred program looks like it's going to be even better with the [video lottery terminals] coming to the tracks."

Winston said Contessa is the perfect trainer for Star Track Farms's plans to expand its operation.

"Gary is very focused on New York-breds and he has an edge on some other trainers because he's hands-on with everything," Winston said.

That approach was apparent during a recent visit to his barn after training hours. Contessa's horses were led outside the barn by stable employees for a thorough inspection. While the trainer ran his hand down the legs of his horses, his cell phone was ringing nonstop.

"I bill 27 owners each month, but that doesn't include the partners those owners have," Contessa said. "I probably have hundreds of owners, and I'm on a first-name basis with all of them."