Uncle Sigh (right) runs second to rival Samraat in the Withers Stakes. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
Uncle Sigh’s path to prominence is extraordinary. It is not every day that a horse gains his first career victory against fellow New York-breds at Aqueduct at the end of his 2-year-old campaign and goes on to place second in the Withers (G3) and Gotham (G3) at 3.
“I kind of went from kindergarten to fifth grade to high school to college and skipped the grades in between,” said veteran trainer Gary Contessa.
The college exam will come on Saturday in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct when Uncle Sigh renews his budding rivalry with undefeated Samraat and freakishly fast Social Inclusion, among other high-caliber 3-year-olds.
The challenge is stiff enough that it prevents Contessa, a New York-based trainer who has never had a Kentucky Derby starter, from even thinking about a possible bid on the first Saturday in May. “There is not a trainer in America who doesn’t want to go to the Kentucky Derby, but right now we have a major hurdle on Saturday,” he said.
The first issue involves turning the tables on Samraat. After Uncle Sigh broke his maiden in eye-popping fashion, roaring off by 14 ½ lengths last Dec. 27 at Aqueduct, he found himself on the lead in the Withers on Feb. 1. He was unable to withstand the resolute charge of Samraat, bowing by one length. He sat in second through most of the Gotham on March 1 at Aqueduct, only to be nipped again by Samraat, this time by an exasperating neck.
SAMRAAT EDGES UNCLE SIGH IN GOTHAM STAKES
Contessa views both of those starts as learning experiences for everyone involved. “We’ve had two good stakes races, but two troubled trips in those stakes races,” he said.
He added that the Withers made it clear to him that the son of Indian Charlie does not do his best running when asked to set the pace. He thinks the youngster might have been a bit too forwardly placed in the Gotham as well.
Contessa said he will leave it to jockey Corey Nakatani to work out the best possible trip in the mile-and-an-eighth Wood. He also said, “I’d be just as happy with us laying third, fourth or fifth and having a stalking trip.”
At the same time, he is very concerned that Social Inclusion might shake loose on the lead if no one in the field chooses to go with him. The Pioneerof the Nile colt debuted with a rousing 7 ½-length score at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22. Nothing more than a hand ride was needed from Luis Contreras when Social Inclusion set a track record of 1:40.97 for a mile-and-a-sixteenth at Gulfstream in drubbing Remsen winner Honor Code by 10 lengths in an allowance race that marked his second start.
“The key is somebody has to hook Social Inclusion,” Contessa said. “I believe that horse has to be challenged.”
Uncle Sigh, owned by Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson, showed his readiness for the Wood by drilling four furlongs in 47 3/5 seconds on Tuesday. Contessa praises the bay colt like a proud father. “Uncle Sigh, this horse is the coolest dude, probably one of the coolest horses I’ve trained in my life,” he said. “I think somebody could sit on his back and shoot a gun and he wouldn’t flinch.”
Contessa would like nothing more than to showcase that cool before 150,000 raucous fans at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. For now, that last step is a big one.