01/10/2011 3:13PM

Just like old times for Contessa at Aqueduct

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Gary Contessa won five races from 15 starters last week at Aqueduct.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – The first week of 2011 was a blast from the not-so-distant-past for trainer Gary Contessa.

Contessa, the four-time leading trainer on the New York Racing Association circuit before being usurped by Todd Pletcher in 2010, won five races from 15 starters last week at Aqueduct, including a three-win day Friday. The week gave Contessa 10 wins from 70 starters since the inner track opened, putting him in the thick of a crowded race for leading trainer. Todd Pletcher leads the way with 14 wins, followed by Rick Violette (13), David Jacobson (11), and Chris Englehart (10).

“It was a blast from the past,” Contessa said Monday morning while driving from Aqueduct to his upstate New York home. “I have 45 horses [in New York] right now. When I had 120 horses we banged off three or four or more at a time. We had times when we won six or seven in two days.”

From 2006-09, Contessa was the leading trainer on the NYRA circuit, averaging 143 wins a year. In 2010, Contessa won 86 races, finishing second to Pletcher, who had 120.

“I don’t have the numbers and I’m fine with it,” Contessa said. “When you’re a horse trainer, you learn to play the hand that’s dealt to you.”

Contessa, who also has six horses based in south Florida, said several of his young horses suffered from minor problems such as sore shins and are just ready to return. One of those was Vixen’s Roar, a 3-year-old daughter of Pulpit who won a maiden race Sunday over the inner track by 5 1/2 lengths.

Contessa purchased Vixen’s Roar out of last February’s Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old in training sale for $200,000. She debuted in a six-furlong race at Saratoga on Aug. 1 and finished sixth but came out of the race with a fractured cannon bone after she was kicked in the starting gate by another horse.

“They backed her out and everything appeared okay, but that horse when it flipped in the gate kicked my filly in the hind leg,” Contessa said. “She ran so poorly in that maiden race, and we had this cut in the back of her leg. Sure enough underneath the nasty cut was the fracture.”

Vixen’s Roar made it back to the races on Nov. 28, when she finished fifth in a maiden turf race at Aqueduct. Sunday’s authoritative victory going a mile and 70 yards around two turns likely earned Vixen’s Roar a spot in the $65,000 Busher Stakes on Feb. 19.

“She won as easy as a horse can win,” Contessa said. “She wants two turns, she’s got a great pedigree, I’m seriously thinking of going to the Busher off that race yesterday.”

Between Vixen’s Roar, the filly Arch Support, and the colt Preachintothedevil, Contessa appears to have a trio of stakes-caliber 3-year-olds. But Contessa knows days like Friday – when he won with three of five runners – are going to come less frequently.

“Unless somebody walks into my life with 20 or 30 horses, my days of winning three or four a day will happen sporadically,” he said.

$35K claimer serves as feature

If a forecasted snowstorm doesn’t cancel Wednesday’s card, horseplayers will see a rarity on this circuit – an all claiming-race program including five for maidens. The nominal feature is a $35,000 claiming race, scheduled for one mile, which goes as the sixth.

The seven-horse field consists of four horses making starts for new trainers and the suspicious dropdown of I’ve Got the Fever, who makes his first start since finishing seventh in the Grade 3 Gotham here last March. Prior to being rushed into the Gotham, I’ve Got the Fever won a one-mile maiden race by 2 3/4 lengths over the inner track. As a 2-year-old in 2009, I’ve Got the Fever was running in maiden races against the likes of Super Saver, Rule, and Aikenite. John Terranova, trainer of I’ve Got the Fever, has a 25 percent success rate bringing horses back off layoffs of six months or longer.

Sun Dance Moon makes his first start for the Steve Asmussen barn, which claimed him from the Richard Dutrow Jr. stable for $25,000 off a winning effort in a seven-furlong race over the main track Nov. 19. Asmussen hits at 20 percent first off the claim, and assistant trainer Toby Sheets has retained the services of leading rider Ramon Dominguez, who wins at a 46 percent clip for this barn.

Monte, 1 for 15 lifetime, makes his first start off the Rudy Rodriguez claim, while W.W. Lady’s Man makes his first start for Bruce Brown after having been running for Dominic Giglio in Monmouth and Pennsylvania. New Adventure goes first off the Joe Imperio claim. No Mine is 7 for 12, but those wins came at Presque Isle Downs and Finger Lakes.