Gary Contessa finally back at Kentucky Derby with long shot Uncle Sigh
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Thirty-two years after his first Kentucky Derby, trainer Gary Contessa finally is here with a horse of his own. Like Reinvested, who ran third in 1982 when Contessa worked for Stanley Hough, Uncle Sigh is a long shot. He also is bedding down in the same barn on Churchill Downs' backstretch.
Contessa, who was only 24, also was on his own with Reinvested. Hough had a bad experience in the 1981 Derby with Proud Appeal, who finished 18th behind Pleasant Colony as part of the favored 2-1 entry.
"Stanley didn't want to come back for Reinvested, so he sent me down here," Contessa said. "It was cool.
"Reinvested was part of the [mutuel field, and I don't think I did a single interview. After he finished third, everyone wanted to talk to me."
Barn 41, near the front gate, is separated from Longfield Avenue by 50 yards of prime grazing area. Like Contessa, a Merrick native and a member of Calhoun High School's Sports Hall of Fame, Uncle Sigh is a New York-bred. He's named for Silas Merritt "Uncle Si" Robertson, a duck-call maker on A&E's reality series "Duck Dynasty." Co-owner Chip McEwen approximated the nickname because he said he didn't want to go through the hassle of getting permission to use a living person's name.
"He's doing wonderful," Contessa said of Uncle Sigh, who comes off his only bad race, a fifth in the Wood Memorial in which he started slowly and endured a very wide trip. The son of Indian Charlie, third in the 1998 Derby, is 1-for-5 with three seconds, two against his Aqueduct rival Samraat, the other New York-bred running for the roses.
Uncle Sigh drew post 3 Wednesday in a field of 20, with morning-line odds of 30-1. "I'm very pleased with the 3," Contessa said. "Give me the inside any time, it's the shortest way around."
In the Wood, Uncle Sigh was forced out of his usual running style, on or near the lead. Unfortunately for him, five others in this Derby -- Samraat, Wildcat Red, General a Rod, Chitu and Vicar's in Trouble -- like to run the same way.
"Ideally, I'd like to see him in the first flight, behind two horses duking it out on the front end," Contessa said. "I'm not going to worry about what position he's in until they turn for home. Then I'm going to be a little stirred up."
Contessa will be joined by his wife, Jennifer; his sons Vincent, 25, and Joseph, 23, and his office manager, John Diaz. McEwen told him he's hosting 48 people and renting 20 hotel rooms, "which he said will cost him about $100,000."
Aqueduct's leading jockey, 21-year-old Irad Ortiz Jr., will be on Uncle Sigh for the first time. His brother, Jose Ortiz, 20, who was second in the Big A's inner-track standings, rides Samraat. Each makes his Derby debut, and they're only the fourth set of brothers to ride in the same Derby, joining Milo and Angel Valenzuela (1960), Chris and Gregg McCarron (1976), and Eddie and Sam Maple (1984).
Contessa said he's not concerned about the inexperience of Irad, who like Jose is remarkably mature.
"Irad is cool under fire and makes good decisions," Contessa said. "This is a race where 12 horses are going to have trouble. I just hope mine isn't one of them.'"
The Ortiz brothers have plenty of racing DNA, because their grandfather, also named Irad, and an uncle, Ivan, were jockeys in Puerto Rico. The Ortizes learned the basics at a riding school there and rode on the island before moving to the United States.
"They've been taught well," Contessa said. "It's very rare to see riders that age do so well so quickly in New York, which makes you wait and makes you pay. These guys jumped right into it, winning stakes, and trainers have their eyes on them. They're kind of like Peyton and Eli. They're that good."