After years of success, trainer Gary Contessa still focused on winning - 02/01/14
It is just before five o'clock on a Sunday morning. While most of Long Island is sound asleep, the backside of Belmont Park is already bustling. A line of traffic is forming outside the gates along Hempstead Turnpike. Car horns are honking, headlights are flashing and the human and equine engines are revving, ready to get the day started before the sun even thinks about waking up.
I wait my turn to enter the chain-link fence separating Belmont Park from its neighbors. I can see my target just beyond the security checkpoint as I inch inside the fence. A diamond shaped logo colored in white with big green letters that read, Gary Contessa.
I find a parking spot next to his barn and walk through an open door. That is where I am greeted by two chickens just casually making their way through. I round a corner with a few horses giving me the same curious look. I pass a few hot walkers getting ready to take the thoroughbreds out of their stalls, but not one says a word as I search for the trainer who runs the place. The barn is dimly lit and with daylight still hours away, I feel as if I just found myself in a never ending maze. Turn after turn, I find myself repeating my steps. Halfway down a long row of stalls and horses, there is the proverbial 'light at the end of the tunnel'. A glowing door with 'Office' written in red letters, inside sits Gary Contessa, the New York Racing Association's leading trainer from 2006 to 2009.
Following a brief introduction and a colorful description of the early morning events surrounding the horses Gary Contessa has stabled in Florida, I am ushered out of the office by one of two foreman he has working for him.
At this point it is about 5:30 in the morning and Barn 52 is running like a well-oiled machine. A single sheet of paper taped on the wall keeps the barn in motion. Horses are walking laps around the barn, grooms are brushing other horses down, stalls are being cleaned, exercise riders are looking for assignments, the veterinarian is making his rounds as well.
Back in his office, Gary Contessa is finishing up his morning routine of emails to the horses's owners. While he pounds away on the keyboard, him and his assistant trainer discuss the days races, the horses they have entered and any possible claiming opportunities that might be available. Then comes a knock at the door.
One of his workers tells him his horses are on the training track and he grabs his coat and binoculars to walk over and watch his horse breeze. My interview continues the whole way over. Gary Contessa talks about his passion for the game and how he notices things other trainers and horsemen miss. The clocker stand is crowded. Trainers are shooting the bull with jockeys looking for a mount and owners looking for their own sort of 'leg up'. Contessa does not get involved with the conversation, at least not anywhere near the training track. He goes to watch his horse and nothing gets in the way of that.
You could sense a little bit of nervousness around the Belmont Training Track that morning. Less than 24 hours earlier, Caixa Electronica, a graded stakes winning horse, was killed in a head-on collision with another horse who had gotten loose on the track. I asked him if that sort of thing worries him. He told me it does, but when you allow something to change your routine, that's when you make mistakes. So back and forth we went between the barn and the track, watching several of his horses train over the next few hours. Overall, Gary Contessa thought it was a pretty successful day, on the training track at least.
It is just before noon and back in the barn, all is quiet but the sounds of the latest Top 40 hits played through a dirty old boom box hanging near one of the stalls. By this point the horses had been walked, fed, cleaned and groomed, but Contessa still needed to get a closer look at some of them. With a mixture of snow and rain falling from the grey clouds hanging over Belmont Park, a handful of horses are paraded out into the elements. They were walked about 30 feet in one direction and then back. That's all it takes for Gary Contessa to spot any abnormalities in their steps. After a quick rub of their legs, the horses were put back in their stalls until the next morning.
Inside the tiny office, I sat and watched as the trainer and his assistant trainer set up the next day's schedule. His assistant would call out a horses name and Gary Contessa would reply with the regiment. "Walk, gallop" "Walk, breeze" "Jog, gallop" and along it went. As the group gets ready for the drive to Aqueduct for a day of racing, this horse training machine of a barn does not stop, it only slows down slightly. But in a matter of hours, it will start to hum again before dawn as one of the most successful trainers in the New York area works out the kinks to find his owners some winners.