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Horse racing: Uncle Sigh hopes to follow Funny Cide’s journey

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Just over a decade ago, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, capturing the attention and imagination of the horse racing world.

Known as the “gutsy gelding,” and locally owned by the Sackets 6 of Sackets Harbor, Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness Stakes in 2003 and came up short in his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Now Uncle Sigh, also a New York-bred horse who has ties to the north country, will make a Run for the Roses in Saturday’s 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Uncle Sigh’s trainer, Gary Contessa, himself a New York native, is married to Watertown native Jennifer Conklin Contessa, who still has family in the area.

“It started with Funny Cide and it was like no expected a New York-bred to win the Derby, but he did,” Gary Contessa said Wednesday. “Now this year we have two horses in there and next year we may have four horses in. New York breds are getting very, very solid.”

The colt represents the first Kentucky Derby entrant for Contessa as a trainer, who has been a standout conditioner on the New York racing circuit, earning 16 New York Racing Association meet titles.

“The Derby is so great because of the way the fans and the public and the press embrace it,” said Gary Contessa, 56, who grew up in Merrick on Long Island. “It’s the Super Bowl of racing, it’s like the World Series and the Stanley Cup — it’s everything — it’s horse racing’s version of the big one.”

“There are only a couple in the race,” Jennifer Contessa said of New York breds. “And it’s exciting as we have a New York horse and a New York trainer there — there’s a lot of New York pride.”

Uncle Sigh is one of two New York breds in the Kentucky Derby field along with rival Samraat, to which Uncle Sigh finished runner-up to in a pair of Grade 3 stakes races at Aqueduct Raceway — the Withers and Gotham, on Feb. 1 and March 1, respectively.

“It kind of goes to show you how good the New York-bred program is getting,” Gary Contessa said. “People are breeding top stallions in New York, and they’re bringing in top mares and they’re really getting good horses.”

Samraat, one of the top-ranked Derby entrants, is one of three horses listed at 15-1 on the morning-line odds, with California Chrome the favorite at 5-2. Uncle Sigh, which will break from post position 3, at 30-1.

“I’m not unhappy with that,” Gary Contessa said of the post position. “He (Uncle Sigh) breaks well. I think he’s faster than the horses inside of him. This gives him an opportunity to get position, maybe even get to the rail in the second flight. I love that position.”

Contessa’s previous Kentucky Derby experience was 32 years earlier when as an assistant to trainer Stanley Hough, who sent out Reinvested to a third-place finish.

After striking out on his own as a trainer and saddling his first winner in 1985, Contessa has gone on to win more than 2,000 races, reaching the milestone last year.

NYRA’s leading trainer from 2006-09, Contessa set a New York record for win on the circuit with 159 in 2007, breaking mentor Frank Martin’s mark of 156. Now Contessa, who has run horses in the prestigious Breeders’ Cup, has the coveted chance to saddle his first horse in the Derby.

“I know I’ve been training horses for 35 years and this is my first chance,” Gary Contessa said. “But every year, there 24,000 foals give or take, and only 20 of them make it into the starting gate for the Derby. So those are your chances of coming up with a Derby horse. So I’m thrilled I’ve come up with one and I think I have one that could make a difference and could be ‘the one,’ so we’ll find out.”

Uncle Sigh most recently ran fifth in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Aqueduct on April 5. Samraat was runner-up to Wicked Strong, a colt named in honor of the city of Boston’s fortitude in the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, which is in the Derby field.

“He managed to survive the winter in New York,” Gary Contessa said of Uncle Sigh, who was bred at Milfer Farms in Unadilla in Otsego County. “If I knew the winter was going to be this bad, I wouldn’t have even wintered in New York this year. He managed to survive that well and he’s done well since.”

With his relaxed demeanor and steady determination on the track, the Contessas see similarities in Uncle Sigh’s character to that of Funny Cide’s.

“He’s a very. very cool minded horse,” Gary Contessa said of Uncle Sigh. “But if you know horses, they love to make liars out of trainers. Even your coolest minded horse can be led over to the Derby and see 150,000 crazy people and suddenly decide to be one himself. But to date, he’s been very good and he’s been just an incredibly level minded horse. ... and that’s a huge advantage to a trainer.”

Uncle Sigh is owned by Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony C. Robertson, which sports gold and purple silks, which include appropriately enough a purple heart. Primary owner Chip McEwen III donates 10 percent of any purses or sales to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“Chip McEwen is probably the most benevolent owner in horse racing,” Gary Contessa said. “Besides what we donates to the Wounded Warrior foundation, he’s brought wounded warriors to the races and he doesn’t forget. A lot of people in our country forget our wounded warriors and he doesn’t forget.”

The Contessas are also excited about the interest Uncle Sigh has been generating across the state and beyond.

“We have a lot of support from our fans on Long Island,” Jennifer Contessa said. “We have a lot of support and fans in Watertown now and upstate New York.”

Uncle Sigh is developing such a following that he already has his own Facebook page, although his immediate connections don’t exactly who started it.

“It’s kind of cool and I don’t know who started it,” Jennifer Contessa said. “And none of Gary’s employees or Gary can figure out who did it. It actually doesn’t matter, but it’s obviously a fan or somebody who cares about the horse — maybe it’s the breeder. It’s pretty cool.”

The Contessas recently celebrated Jennifer’s 40th birthday as Gary surprised her with a trip to Las Vegas.

“It was really awesome and while we were there, we watched the last couple races that Saturday (April 12),” Jennifer Contessa said. “We knew he was really close to getting in. We didn’t know for sure until that Sunday, so we were all excited. That was some birthday present.”

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