Horse racing: Contessa plotting route to Derby

Trainer Gary Contessa has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he said he’s got Derby Fe

Trainer Gary Contessa has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he said he’s got Derby Fever after Eightyfiveinafifty romped by 171⁄4 lengths in a maiden race last Saturday at Aqueduct.

The son of Forest Camp was an also-ran in his career debut at Saratoga Race Course last summer, finishing third, 41⁄4 lengths behind a horse who would garner all kinds of buzz, Dublin, the Grade I Hopeful winner for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Now, Eightyfiveinafifty will attempt to get his name in the spotlight by working his way up to the New York-based Derby preps, including the $100,000 Whirlaway on Feb. 6 and the Grade III Gotham.

“His race on Saturday was exactly what I expected — an overpowering performance,” Contessa told the New York Racing Assoc­iation. “I said before the race that he was a Derby horse. When you race a Derby horse in a maiden race in the dead of winter at Aqueduct, he’s supposed to win like that.”

Eightyfiveinafifty ran six furlongs on the inner track in 1:10.86, by far the fastest time for that distance at Aqueduct last weekend.

For that effort, he earned a 105 Beyer speed figure, the highest in the country in the first two weeks of 2010.

His next assignment will send him around two turns for the first time.

Forest Camp, who distinguished himself in 2005 when eight of his progeny won first time out, never won beyond six furlongs.

“I would bet that this horse will get two turns,” Contessa said. “Watching him in the mornings, I get the impression that he’ll run all day — he never gets enough. When he’s done galloping in the morning, it’s all the rider can do to pull him up. If I breeze him five-eighths, it’s at least a mile before he gets pulled up. He has a lot of gears.”

Contessa had a nice 3-year-old prospect in stakes winner Citrus Kid, but he was sold.

The trainer liked Eightyfiveinafifty even more, and it helps that the owners, who include Contessa himself and his wife, Jennifer, are more interested, for now, in getting a horse to the Derby than getting a big check from a prospective buyer.

“He is the best horse I’ve ever trained,” Contessa said. “I said that even before he ran. I’ve won Grade I’s and Grade II’s, but this horse is the most talented horse I’ve had. Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll be the greatest horse I’ve trained — he has to achieve his greatness. A big part of being a great horse is staying sound, and that’s the most important thing we’re trying to do — keep him sound. If we can do that, I really think he will far eclipse any horse I’ve trained, in terms of achievements.”

year-end leaders

Garrett Gomez barely beat Julien Leparoux, and Ramon Dominguez was not much farther behind, in the final money leaders among jockeys in North America in 2009, as compiled by Equibase.

Gomez’s mounts earned purses of $18,571,171, followed by $18,560,565 for Leparoux and $18,348,422 for Dominguez.

Kent Desormeaux was way behind those three, at $13,262,422.

Russell Baze had the most wins among rider, with 415, to 391 for Dominguez.

Zenyatta ($3.33 million) topped the earnings list for horses, followed by Rachell Alexandra ($2.746 million), Gio Ponti ($2.333 million) and Summer Bird ($2.323 million).

Steve Asmussen, who broke another record for training wins with 650, had $21,876,405 in purses, compared to $15,454,429 for Todd Pletcher, who won 238 races.

Perhaps the most interesting result came in the owner standings.

Michael Gill edged Juddmonte Farms, $6,669,950 to $6,525,818. Gill started 2,247 horses in 2010, with 370 winners, compared to just 116 starts (27 winners) for Juddmonte. It helps when you have stakes stars like Ventura, Champs Elysees and Midday, who won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, in your stable.

Weekend stakes

Stardom Bound, the 2008 champion juvenile filly, will return to the track on Sunday as the topweight in the Grade II El Encino at Santa Anita.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, who was purchased by a partnership that includes IEAH Stables early in her 3-year-old year, won the Grade I Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks last year, then tailed off in the second half of the season, when she went over six months without a race before coming back with a disappointing fifth in the Gazelle at Aqueduct on Nov. 28.

In the Encino, she’ll face Grade I winner Dream Empress.

Today, another of Edward P. Evans’ horses transferred from Jimmy Jerkens to Pletcher last year, Storm Play, will be the 7-2 morning-line second choice behind the coupled entry of Understatement and Well Positioned in the $65,000 Evening Attire, formerly the Aqueduct Handicap, at Aqueduct.

The entry is 3-5. Understatement was 2-2-0 from seven starts last year, and was second by a neck to Ah Day, who is 4-1 for the Evening Attire, at Laurel Park in December.

Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, riding a six-race losing streak, including a fourth in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness, will make his season debut as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade II San Fernando at Santa Anita.

If all goes well for Papa Clem, the Dubai World Cup could be on his radar.

Also on the card are the Grade II Santa Ynez and Grade III San Rafael, in which Hall of Famer Bob Baffert’s Conveyance is the 3-5 favorite against four others.

He could be another Kentucky Derby prospect for Baffert, but he’ll go around two turns for the first time, and hasn’t raced in stakes company yet.

Digger, coming off a win in the Gravesend at Aqueduct on Dec. 26, is the 2-1 second choice, coupled with entrymate Roaring Lion, in the $50,000 Fire Plug at Laurel, where the 6-year-old Digger has posted five of his 12 lifetime victories.

The 9-5 favorite is Ravalo, 13-for-29 lifetime, but 0-for-5 at Laurel. He was runner-up to Vineyard Haven in the Grade I DeFrancis Dash in October.

There are a smattering of stakes scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, including the Jimmy Winkfield for 3-year-olds going six furlongs at Aqueduct, the one-mile Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park and the Grade II San Marcos and ungraded San Pedro at Santa Anita.

Around the tracks

Summer Bird, the likely 3-year-old male Eclipse Award winner, is at Oaklawn Park recuperating from a nondisplaced condylar fracture to his right foreleg sustained Nov. 29. Trainer Tim Ice told the Daily Racing Form that the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner will start training again on March 1 in preparation for a start at Belmont Park. He’ll use the New York stakes schedule as a path to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Ice said. . . .

Starlight Partners, co-managed by Schenectady native Don Lucarelli and Jack Wolf of Saratoga Springs, got 2010 off to a good start when Three Day Rush outdueled stablemate Mission Impazible in a $48,000 allowance race on the undercard of Gulfstream Park’s Sprint Showcase last Saturday. Stakes winners on the card included A Little Warm (Spectacular Bid), Pretty Prolific (Grade III Sugar Swirl), Custom Carlos (Grade III Mr. Prospector), who was three-quarters of a length ahead of Past the Point, Hatfield (Turf Sprint) and Richiegirlgonewild (Grade III Old Hat). Munnings, the two-time Grade II winner at Belmont Park, was scratched from the Mr. Prospector. . . .

The versatile Einstein, a disappointing 11th place in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is in training for the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf on Feb. 6, but could also enter stud this year for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs.

Here and there

Joe Drape won the 2009 Media Eclipse Award for writing in the feature/enterprise category for his piece in the New York Times examining the issue of legal med­ications in racing.

His April 30, 2009, story in the Times, “Despite Outcry, Derby Owners Fall Silent on Drugs for Horses,” was Drape’s second Eclipse. He won the 2002 award for his coverage of that year’s Breeders’ Cup Ultra Pick Six scandal.

Sean Clancy, co-editor/publisher of ST Publishing, whose products include the Saratoga Special, won the Eclipse writing award in the news/commentary category for a column on the late Hall of Fame trainer Sidney Watters that appeared in the Jan. 3, 2009, edition of The Blood-Horse.

ESPN won in the national tel­evision-live racing category for its telecast of the Belmont Stakes.

The 39th annual Eclipse Awards will be presented on Monday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. . . .

The first reported foal by two-time horse of the year Curlin to drop was delivered by Zophie on Tuesday at Burleson Farms in Midway, Ky.

Zophie, by Hawkster, is a multiple winner who produced Appealing Zophie, the 2006 Grade I Spinaway winner at Saratoga Race Course who went on to win the Grade III Silverbulletday at 3.

Curlin stands for $60,000 at Lane’s End with his own sire, Smart Strike. He covered 131 mares in his initial breeding season for a fee of $75,000.

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