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Kentucky Derby: Uncle Sigh gives area fans fun ride

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The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday didn’t unfold and finish quite the way north country residents connected to horses Uncle Sigh and Vicar’s In Trouble had hoped it would.

Uncle Sigh, trained by Gary Contessa, who is married to Watertown native Jennifer Conklin Contessa, set the pace and led for much of the race before finishing 14th over the 1 1/4-mile distance at Churchill Downs.

Vicar’s In Trouble, ridden by jockey Rosie Napravnik, whose mother-in-law Sara Escudero grew up in Watertown, wasn’t much of a factor in the Derby in finishing last in the 19-horse field.

Both colts finished well back of 5-2 favorite California Chrome, which pulled away on the stretch to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths under jockey Victor Espinoza to win the Run for the Roses over a fast track.

“He got the lead and the pace wasn’t fast,” Gary Contessa, a Long Island native, said of Uncle Sigh. “But he just got beat.”

The New York-bred Uncle Sigh has developed a following in the north country, particularly among Jennifer Contessa’s relatives in the area.

“The whole experience was just worth it,” said Jennifer’s aunt, Rosie Taylor of Rodman. “How many people can say they had a horse in the Derby and had a personal relationship with the horse? It’s kind of exciting.”

Yet Uncle Sigh, sent off at 30-1 odds, seized the lead out of the starting gate and maintained it along the inside until another California horse, Chitu, moved in front on the far turn. But California Chrome surged into the lead on the top of the stretch and drew away for the victory.

“It’s a little disappointing, but at least he was there,” Jennifer Conklin’s uncle Lloyd Woodruff of Copenhagen said of Uncle Sigh. “There’s some horses that didn’t even make it, so it’s still an accomplishment.”

Jennifer Contessa’s grandmother Mable Churchill watched the Derby from her home in Burrville.

“He started out great and I feel bad for them,” the 88-year-old Churchill said of the Contessas. “He started off so well and he was going so good, but that’s a long way on a mile-and-a- quarter track. I think he just got winded.”

Woodruff, who viewed the race from his farm in Copenhagen, said he’s taken more of an interest in horse racing, beginning when he and his wife Rita were invited by the Contessas to visit Saratoga Race Course during the summer.

“I got into the races a little then and I enjoy watching them,” Woodruff said. “Gary is very knowledgeable with the horses and stuff so he really treated us to a good time, like bringing us to where the horses are saddled and everything. It was a great trip.”

Taylor, who owns five horses of her own, said she has been around horses all her life after growing up on the family farm in Burrville.

“I’ve been a horse woman since before I was born practically and I’ve never been to a horse race,” Taylor said. “This is the first experience I’ve ever had with racing. I have five horses right now and they’re certainly not thoroughbreds. But this is fun being able to follow their horse like this.”

Uncle Sigh, who is owned by Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony C. Robertson, previously ran fifth in the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 5, a Kentucky Derby prep, and finished runner up in two previous Grade II stakes races to fellow New York-bred Samraat, who was near the lead on the final turn before finishing fifth.

“I had some people over to watch the race, my sons and family,” Taylor said. “It was pretty exciting, I thought he had it until the last turn and he lost some steam.”

Jennifer Contessa grew up on the family farm in Burrville before her family moved to Greenwich in Washington County when she was 12. She met Gary Contessa in the summer of 1995 at Saratoga when she was a college student and the two married the next year.

“Definitely, it’s very exciting,” Woodruff said of the Kentucky Derby. “And they’re really good people, so that makes it even nicer.”

Vicar’s In Trouble, who departed from post position one along the rail at 20-1 odds, went on to finish dead last.

“We actually got into a really good position,” Napravnik said. “You can’t expect not to be close to each other. We got into a great position.I was tracking behind California Chrome, and we didn’t really have enough horse.’’

Last year, Napravnik became the highest-placing female rider in the Kentucky Derby with a fifth-place finish aboard Mylute.

Napravnik, who also became the first woman to win the Kentucky Oaks, a Grade I stakes race for the top 3-year-old fillies in the country on the eve of the Kentucky Derby in 2012, guided Untapable to victory on Friday to record her second Kentucky Oaks victory in three years.

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