08/02/2006 11:00PM

Contessa breaks ranks and joins Excelsior

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The general perception is that the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association is fully behind Empire Racing Associates in its bid to win the franchise to conduct racing at the three major racetracks in New York.

That perception was altered in a big way Thursday when it was announced that trainer Gary Contessa, one of nine members of NYTHA's board of directors, officially joined forces with competitor Excelsior Racing Associates, a group headed by George Steinbrenner's son-in-law Steve Swindal, a partner in the New York Yankees. Also joining Excelsior on Thursday was Jerry Bilinksi, a former chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, and one of Contessa's owners.

Excelsior is one of 16 entities that have expressed an interest in bidding for the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The franchise also includes the right to operate 4,500 slot machines at Aqueduct. Currently, the New York Racing Association holds that franchise, which is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2007.

Contessa, who leads all NYRA-circuit trainers in wins this year, said his role in Excelsior would be as an unpaid adviser. The announcement of Contessa joining Excelsior comes two days after Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey was announced as an adviser to the group.

"I was asked to sit in at a meeting with Excelsior and I liked what I heard," Contessa said Thursday afternoon. "After sitting in on the meeting I truly believe that they're a contender, that Empire isn't necessarily the only one out there, and [Excelsior] doesn't have a guy that's in the trenches working for them.

"My presence with Excelsior basically means that if Empire doesn't win and Excelsior does, the horsemen in New York are going to be looked out for and well taken care of. Empire is not the only game in town. I think the horsemen's association might have been a little premature in throwing its support behind Empire. It was not a unanimous vote, but it was majority vote."

The move by Contessa angered Richard Bomze, president of the NYTHA.

"I'm shocked, absolutely shocked," Bomze said. "I cannot imagine why he would support them, being nobody knows anything about horse racing in the entire outfit."

Bomze said he is "seriously considering" asking Contessa to resign from the NYTHA board.

Contessa said he would not resign, and said that backing Empire is a small percentage of what the NYTHA does. He said he is on many NYTHA committees, including the medication committee and the backstretch committee.

Contessa said members of Excelsior were receptive to some of the initiatives he brought up.

"Safer railings, safer track surfaces; make this world safer for the jockeys, for the horses, for the owners; and the guarantee of purse money," Contessa said. "I took them on tours of the backstretch and showed them how terrible the backstretch conditions are. I had an opportunity to represent the horsemen - that's what I'm here for. I didn't get paid to do this. I did it because somebody had to do it."