01/12/2006 1:00AM

Contessa thriving with sale picks


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - His 0-for-7 Thursday notwithstanding, Gary Contessa's success this winter at Aqueduct has exceeded even the trainer's own expectations.

Through the first 26 days of the inner-track meet, Contessa has 22 wins, 10 more than Todd Pletcher and Richard Dutrow Jr. Contessa, 48, is well on his way to winning his fourth inner-track trainer's title.

Taking advantage of some changes in the condition book, Contessa has won virtually every kind of race except a stakes. That could change Sunday, when Contessa sends out the likely favorite, Daytime Promise, in the $65,000 Busanda Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Since the inner track opened, Contessa has run seven horses in five stakes, with his best result being Building New Era's second-place finish in the Damon Runyon. But Contessa doesn't mind the lack of stakes success.

Contessa prides himself most on picking out and developing young horses. He believes 2005 was his best year yet in selecting horses to buy at auction. Recently, Contessa sold Harborage, a son of Monarchos, for a "high six-figure" sum after the 3-year-old ran second in a maiden race. Contessa picked him out for $165,000.

Contessa has a slew of talented young horses, and Daytime Promise may be among his best. A daughter of Five Star Day, Daytime Promise comes off a solid 5 1/2-length victory in a maiden race on New Year's Day after she finished fourth in her debut.

Thursday, Daytime Promise worked a half-mile in 48.61 seconds with jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. aboard. Contessa said he was looking for a half-mile in about 50 seconds.

"I had her in 48-and-one as easy as a horse could work," Contessa said. "She really worked well. She's dappled out, doing well, and she's a dream to train.''

Contessa said Daytime Promise was "the horse I really wanted to have" out of the May 2-year-olds in training sale at Timonium, Md. Contessa told co-owner Dr. Jerry Bilinski that he thought he could buy the filly for $75,000, but wound up getting her for $112,000.

Daytime Promise is one of seven maiden winners Contessa has had at this meet. He has won 10 claiming races and five allowance races.

Aiding Contessa's cause this winter was a decision by management to allow horsemen to keep an unlimited number of horses on the grounds. Contessa has 40 at Aqueduct and another 15 at Belmont. Contessa had applied for stalls at Turfway Park and Gulfstream.

Contessa praised his trio of assistants - Marcelo Arenas, Tiffany LaPatra, and Artie Groeschel - for his success at this meet.

"I have the best group of assistants on the grounds," he said.

Contessa also heaped praise on the New York Racing Association's racing secretary, P.J. Campo, for writing a creative condition book that includes optional claiming races for New York-breds and more starter handicaps.

"What P.J. Campo did was revolutionize New York racing with his condition book, which is absolutely, incredibly good," Contessa said.

One horse of Contessa's to watch for a possible stakes engagement soon is Magnolia Jackson, a 4-year-old New York-bred filly who won an open-company allowance race by four lengths on Wednesday, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 89.

Winkfield tops holiday card

Aqueduct will be open Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and will run a nine-race card highlighted by the $65,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes for 3-year-olds at six furlongs.

The race is expected to see the return of One Way Flight, a New York-bred son of Precise End who is 2 for 2, including a 13 1/4-length victory in the Aspirant Stakes at Finger Lakes in August.

One Way Flight is expected to face a field that includes Gameboye, Johnny Utah, Mid Town, Strummer, and The Village Vicar.

NYRA restricts Maryland shippers

Because of the confirmation of an equine herpes virus infection at Pimlico, all horses shipping into a NYRA racetrack from Maryland must have a current health certificate issued within 48 hours of arrival.

In addition, trainers based at Pimlico who are considering shipping horses to a NYRA track from Maryland must contact NYRA's chief examining veterinarian, Dr. Anthony Verderosa, beforehand. He can be contacted at (516) 351-5314.

* Stewards fined apprentice Pablo Morales $250 for "using poor judgment" before the running of Wednesday's fourth race. According to the stewards, Morales cracked his mount, Top Rate, across the rear end with his whip after the horse acted up in the paddock.

* After starting the meet 0 for 27, trainer Dominick Schettino won three consecutive races over a two-day period. Schettino won the fourth race on Wednesday with Jodi's Call ($22) and came back to win Thursday's second and third races with Gone Goodbye ($28.20) and Dixie Whiz ($8.10). The streak stopped when Xtreme Speed, the 6-5 favorite in the seventh race, finished ninth.