When Gary Contessa entered a $14,000 claimer in last Saturday’s Grade 3 Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct a lot of people probably snickered at him. As often happens, Contessa got the last laugh.
The trainer understood that there was absolutely nothing to lose by running Princess Reyana in the race. With only five horses entered, the worst thing that could have happened was that the filly would run last. But last-place was worth $4,500. That’s free, guaranteed money. Princess Reyana didn’t run last. Sent off at 45-1, she beat one horse and earned $7,500 for owner Mark Valentine.
It might seem that Contessa used basic logic, that no one should turn down free money. But basic logic seems to be in short supply at the racetrack these days, where most trainers seem to think that the best way to handle their horses is to run them as infrequently as possible. Not Contessa. He believes in making money for his owners and what’s the easiest way to make money for an owner? Actually run your horses.
“Just for showing up and running with that horse we got $7,500,” Contessa said. “I didn’t see any downside to it because I knew that they had a short field. For owners, it’s all about making money. Even though I had to swallow the embarrassment of being 45-1, I didn’t finish last and I did what I’m supposed to do for my owners, make them money.”
Most horses in the Contessa barn are good for 12 to 15 starts a year, a big number for this day and age. Mighty Irish was a typical Contessa horse. From June 2, 2010 through July 18, 2010 she ran five times over the 46-day period. A cheap claimer, she earned $36,000 during that brief run.
“I think that horses are athletes and I don’t necessarily buy into the fact that they can’t run a little more often,” Contessa said. “I will not run a horse that’s nursing a problem. I will not knowingly run a horse in a race that could end up injured. But when a horse is doing well, I think they can handle a little more racing than some people believe. If a horse is doing good, eating good, training good and their blood is good, I’m not going to buy into the theory that they have to have six weeks in between races.”
Because Contessa isn’t afraid to run 45-1 shots his winning percentage can’t compare with those of some of the sport’s marquee trainers, most of whom bat about 25 percent. Contessa is winning at a 15 percent rate this year, not bad, but not enough to impress a lot of people. He knows many of his rival trainers are obsessed with their percentages, and believes that’s the reason many just won’t take any chances.
“I also don’t buy into the theory that I have to have 30 percent winners,” he said. “That is why guys run horses every six or weight weeks. They scratch horses when they know they can’t win.”
He knows there are some owners who want no part of a 15-percent trainer.
“My winning percentage may cost me certain owners,” he said. “I haven’t been fired over it. Guys who come to me seem really happy and I always have a barn full of horses. I know there are owners who would never hire me because of my percentage, but if those same owners would look at their bottom line maybe a lot of them would see they’re not making money and might benefit from hiring a trainer like me.”
Odds And Ends: Very sorry to see Luck go. Some didn’t like it because it focused on the seedier sides of the sport, but to have a well-written, well-acted show on HBO every week about horse racing was an unimaginable treat. Racing fans will never get that lucky again … It’s not official, but Fort Erie is also done. The Ontario government has decided to pull slot machines out of the place, as well as two harness tracks, and it will never survive without them. The “Fort” had lousy racing, but it’s a cute little track with a lot of history. Just goes to show you that slots are not the be-all and end-all for horse racing … Any chance that Rachel Alexandra’s foal gets to race versus Zenyatta’s foal? OK, so it’s a million-1, but one can always dream.
Originally Posted on ESPN