06/19/2003 12:00AM

Contessa given 20-day ban


ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainer Gary Contessa on Monday will begin serving a 20-day suspension and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine as a result of eight horses testing positive for ephedrine earlier this year at Aqueduct.

The suspension, handed down by the Belmont Park stewards, was reduced to 20 days from 40 days for Contessa waiving his right of appeal. The maximum penalty Contessa could have faced was a 60-day suspension (45 days if he waived his right of appeal) and $5,000 fine per offense. Because of the extenuating circumstances in this case, the stewards treated the incidents as one positive.

Contessa praised the New York State Racing and Wagering Board board for dealing with his case "based on the facts rather than based on public opinion." Contessa said the ephedrine found in his eight horses - all during a week's time in January - was the result of a "feed supplement that was contaminated with trace levels of ephedrine."

In their ruling, the stewards termed the contamination as "inadvertent."

"I know full well that this suspension is as much of a vindication for me as can be expected," Contessa said. "With eight positives, this incident could have been career-ending, had there been any question of my integrity."

Contessa sent split samples of the positive tests to Dr. Steven Barker at the Louisiana State Testing Laboratory. Testifying in Contessa's behalf, Barker wrote: "It is pharmacologically inconceivable that such a small dose could have any effect on a horse."

Stacey Clifford, a spokesperson for the racing and wagering board, said the "stewards were satisfied that the investigation identified where the contamination came from."

In his absence, Contessa's New York horses will run under assistant Frank Amonte's name. At Monmouth Park, Contessa's assistant Kim Laudati will be listed in the program as the trainer.