07/18/2006 11:00PM

Contessa now a Belmont contender


ELMONT, N.Y. - It was not surprising that Gary Contessa won both the Aqueduct inner-track and main-track trainer titles. He had won both meets at least once previously. It is somewhat surprising, however, that entering the final week of the meet, Contessa is in contention to win his first Belmont spring-summer crown.

Then again, with a little better luck, Contessa could be three or four in front rather than two behind Richard Dutrow Jr. entering the final three days of the meet. In addition to his 26 winners, Contessa also has 63 second- or third-place finishes from 184 starters.

"If 10 percent of those were winners I'd be two or three in front," said Contessa, whose previous best showing at a Belmont spring meet was last year with 14 wins, tying him for seventh. "I've had a lot of bad luck, especially on the turf."

Actually, most of Contessa's luck this year has been good. He won 61 races during the inner-track meet and leads all trainers on this circuit with 93 winners, 22 more than Dutrow.

"If we had an attainable goal for our stable, it would be the most wins for the year in New York," Contessa said.

Contessa hopes to continue that quest in Saratoga, where he has had mixed results the past four summers. In 2002, he won nine races. The following two meets he went a combined 2 for 102. Last year, he won six races despite going winless the first 10 days of the meet.

"I am old-school at Saratoga," Contessa said. "If I win one race I'm off the schneid; I don't get the duck, that's all I care about. Once I win one race, there's 500 pounds off my shoulders. Obviously, I want to win more."

One reason Contessa has won more this year is that he has been able to keep an unlimited number of horses stabled at Aqueduct and Belmont during the winter or Aqueduct and Saratoga during the spring and summer. Thus, he has avoided having to open satellite divisions out of state.

"It's probably the smartest move I ever made," said Contessa, who has 63 horses in training. "I've never been able to split my stable and have that second stable be profitable."

By eschewing divisions at Monmouth or Delaware, Contessa is able to spend more time with his family. Two years ago, Contessa moved his wife, Jennifer, and daughters, Carolyn and Elizabeth, to a farm near Saratoga.

"I'm no more than three hours away from my family, and on the day my daughter has a soccer game I want to be able to train in the morning and go to the game," said Contessa, who splits his time between Saratoga and Aqueduct. "When I die I'd much rather have somebody say 'That guy was a great father' than have someone say 'That guy was a great horse trainer.' "

By being in New York full time, Contessa has been able to accept more clients. One who has made a major impact this year has been Stephen Sigler, who races under the name Winning Move Stable. Sigler is the father of actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who plays Meadow Soprano on the hit HBO television show "The Sopranos."

Winning Move has 27 horses in training and has gone 7 for 51 at this meet, and 18 for 109 on the year. Stephen Sigler had been in a partnership that employed trainer Scott Lake, but after it dissolved, Sigler joined Contessa.

"As much as I admire Scott, he is not here," said Sigler, referring to the fact that Lake has stables out of town. "With me - and it may not be with everybody - my basis of involvement is relationship. You would not see me [own] as many horses if I did not have the kindred relationship with Gary that I do. It's the trust and the relationship that gives me the confidence to invest more and to be a significant owner of a number of horses."

Sigler, who is the president of the national Men's Senior Baseball League, is a hands-on owner. He comes up with many of the ideas for claims and goes over them with Contessa.

"Gary has nixed many claims, and I will tell you that 19 of 20 times he is correct," Sigler said.

The one that got away was Anew, whom Sigler wanted to claim for $35,000 last October. Trainer Steve Asmussen claimed him that day, and since he was gelded over the winter Anew has won 4 of 5 starts, including the Grade 2 True North.

Because of Contessa, Sigler has purchased several 2-year-olds either privately or at auction. One of the first to run was Solid Strike, who won a New York-bred race here at first asking and who is being pointed to the Aspirant at Finger Lakes on Aug. 19.

Jamie-Lynn Sigler owns a small piece of Forest Star, an unraced 3-year-old daughter of Forest Camp who is likely to debut at Saratoga. Brian Sigler, one of Stephen's sons, has part-interest in seven horses.

"Jamie likes it because I like it," Stephen Sigler said. "[Forest Star] was the first 2-year-old I ever bought with Gary, and I asked Jamie if she wanted to be involved and she said yes."

Contessa said he has been grateful that Sigler has come into his barn. Though Sigler and Maggi Moss, another Contessa client, both like to claim, Contessa said that Sigler always defers to Moss.

"He always says, 'Maggi can have the horse,' " Contessa said. "The guy is very good as far as that goes. Having Steve Sigler come into the barn with that many horses works very well. Nobody in this business can have too many friends, and he's a good friend."