01/29/2002 1:00AM

Contessa revs 40-horsepower engine


JAMAICA, N.Y. - Nobody is hotter at Aqueduct these days than trainer Gary Contessa.

During the course of eight consecutive racing days at the Big A, Contessa saddled one winner on each card. His streak was snapped when Active Cat finished third last Saturday, but Contessa bounced right back and won a race on Sunday.

Following Sunday's races, Contessa was the inner track's leading trainer with 16 wins from 98 starters. Richard Dutrow Jr., who has saddled 39 fewer starters than Contessa, was second with 15 winners.

Contessa was scheduled to run three horses here on Wednesday, including first-time starter Sherm, an A. P Jet colt who the trainer said he is very high on.

Contessa, 44, said that during the past few years his barn has undergone a transition from mostly young horses to claimers. The change in stock means Contessa isn't waiting on young horses to mature or to get over typical 2-year-old ailments. The horses in his barn have all been ready to roll.

On an unseasonably warm January morning, Contessa reflected on his good run while giving several of his horses individual inspections outside of his Aqueduct barn, something he does three times a week.

"Claiming a lot of horses makes for a lot more action," Contessa said. "I'm loaded with 40 horses, and the most incredible thing is that everything has been ready to run. The good thing is they have all been training well, and I think I'm in a position to win a few more races in the next couple of weeks."

Contessa said that before he moved his operation to New York several years ago from New Jersey, it wasn't uncommon for him to win four or five races on a single card. But he said his recent winning streak is a bigger deal because it has taken place in New York, where the competition comes at a higher level.

"It's so much tougher to win here," said Contessa, who tied for the inner track title two years ago and was second last year. "You've got claiming guys" such as Scott Lake and Dutrow "who are super aggressive with their stables. So it's great to win races in a bunch.

"You know in December I thought I was going to have a lousy winter," Contessa added. "But this is a fickle business, and I believe there is some god, who controls racing.

"Sometimes," he said, racing "will kick you in the teeth and you're ready to pack it in, and then something good happens."

Contessa has entered two horses for Thursday's card, Mrs Bigshot, a New York-bred maiden in the fourth, and Banner Headline in the seventh race, which carries a $49,000 purse.

Banner Headline has a good chance in the $100,000-$75,000 claiming race, which drew a field of nine older males. Banner Headline finished a good third in his last start on Jan. 18, setting the pace in the 1 3/16-mile race and losing by less than a length to Top Official.

Banner Headline, who will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, drops back to a mile on Thursday and is in for a $100,000 claiming price. "I think this is a really good spot for him," Contessa said. "He's doing very, very well and is coming off a really good third against some nice horses."

Banner Headline has shown an affinity for a wet track, which is a distinct possibility with rain forecast for Wednesday and Thursday.

Also entered in the seventh is Spectacularspencer, trained by Dutrow. He finished third as the favorite in the restricted Alex M. Robb Stakes on Dec. 30 after having won three in a row. Dutrow said he ran Spectacularspencer, whom he claimed for $35,000 in 2000, back too quickly in the Alex M. Robb after the gelding had won a third-level allowance race 15 days earlier.

Dutrow said he would scratch Spectacularspencer if the track is muddy.

Here's Zealous points to General George

Dutrow reports that Here's Zealous, scratched from last Saturday's Paumonok because of a cough, is fine. Here's Zealous was the morning-line favorite.

Dutrow will point Here's Zealous, who won the Grade 3 Gravesend in December, to the $200,000 General George Handicap at Laurel Park on Feb. 18.

Looking down the road, Dutrow said one race he would really love to see Here's Zealous run in is the Grade 1 Carter here on April 13.

"I'm certainly hoping he's that kind of horse," Dutrow said. "He's better than ever and providing nothing goes wrong, he'll run well at Laurel."

Affirmed Success gets in work

Affirmed Success, preparing for the Grade 2 General George, worked five furlongs over Belmont Park's training track in 1:00.12 on Tuesday. By trainer Richard Schosberg's stopwatch, Affirmed Success, who began his two-turn work at the half-mile pole, galloped out six furlongs in 1:13.40.

"That's a standard training track work for him," Schosberg said. "During the summer over the main track, he might do it in 59."

* Heberto Castillo Jr. is scheduled to resume riding on Friday, according to his agent, Winston Heslop. Castillo required more than a dozen stitches to close a gash on his ear, a result of a spill here last Friday.