When New York trainer Gary Contessa spoke out on the topic of immigration and backstretch labor last week, people had all kinds of opinions. Some of them were agreement or support, but others were aggressive disagreement. The risk of voicing an opinion in this digital age is that someone will find it and use it as an opportunity for trolling. The more public the person with the opinion, the more trolls they'll probably accumulate.
This had me wondering: in a meet where breakdown rates have protestors occasionally gathering outside the track, why does Contessa open his Saratoga barn to the public multiple times during the race meet?
“The public up here has a thirst for knowledge. Unlike Belmont, unlike Aqueduct, the public up here can't get enough of horse racing,” said Contessa. “Little kids, older people, people in the middle, young teens, twenties: people want to know about horses. It bothers the heck out of me that we don't offer more stuff, so I took it upon myself to do clinics that are open to the public.”
Contessa started a seminar series out of his barn at the Oklahoma Training Track last summer and had well over 100 attendees at each of the lectures he gave. This year, he had to adjust his seminar schedule to accommodate Equestricon but will be giving a conformation clinic Aug. 22 and a behavior/mental conditioning clinic Aug. 29. Both clinics start at 11 a.m. at Barn 54.
Last year, Contessa also offered a walking tour of the historic landmarks around the Saratoga campus, and he said the crowd was so large he could have used a megaphone to reach the people in the back.
“I looked like the Pied Piper, I had such a long line of people following me. And I like doing it,” said Contessa.
Contessa has had a largely positive response to his barn education seminars and wishes he had the time to do more (he holds them on Tuesdays because that's the track's one dark day, and he usually spends it with his family). He admits he used to be more open about the goings-on in the barn, posting more frequently on social media, but backed off after negative responses began to get to him.
“I used to Tweet a lot and say, ‘Oh I love the way that horse trained today' and then somebody'll say ‘You're a butcher, blah bah,'” he said. “And that, I didn't need, because I was trying to do a good thing, and there's always somebody who tries to knock you.
“I haven't had that problem with the clinics. I'm sure I could. I welcome my detractors to come here and see how we do things and walk through the barns and see how we train and handle the horses. I welcome that, and I think giving people an education on how the horses are treated is a great thing.”
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