NEW KENT — It didn't take Gary Contessa long to fall for Rydilluc. In horse racing terms, it was the closest representation you'll find of love-at-first-sight.
Contessa has been a New York-based horse trainer for more than three decades. He has a knack for finding talent. Contessa's working relationship with Rydilluc didn't begin until May 2012, but Contessa knew he had to have the horse in his stable a few months earlier.
He just had to wait until the price was right, and put the horse in the right situations.
"He's the most magnificent moving horse I've ever seen in 30 years of training," said Contessa, who brings Rydilluc to Colonial Downs on Saturday as the 9-to-5 morning line favorite for the $500,000 Virginia Derby, a Grade II race over a mile-and-a-quarter of turf. "With him, it's all about his stride."
Rydilluc, which will be ridden by jockey Edgar Prado, will head a 10-horse field that also will feature Charming Kitten, Jack Milton and War Dancer. Charming Kitten and Jack Milton have both been groomed by trainer Todd Pletcher, who has three Triple Crown wins in his career.
Charming Kitten and Jack Milton finished second and third, respectively, last month to Rydilluc in the Penn Mile at Penn National Race Course. War Dancer is trained by Ken McPeek, who won the 2002 Belmont Stakes with Sarava. Rydilluc, Charming Kitten, Jack Milton and Virginia Derby entry Draw Two all traveled from New York on Friday in the same van.
Contessa saw Rydilluc for the first time at a sale in early 2012 in Miami. At the time, the asking price was $200,000, which was a little more than Contessa was willing to spend. Rydilluc's workout times weren't particularly eye-catching, but it was his running form that grabbed Contessa's attention.
"I looked at him and said, 'Oh, boy, this horse can move,'" Contessa said. "I loved him. I already had him on my radar from the Miami sale. … I know he wasn't going to catch the eye of (top trainer Todd) Pletcher and all these other guys."
When Rydilluc went back on the block in May 2012 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-old sale in Timonium, Md., the asking price was $150,000. Contessa sent an urgent email to a group of investors with a clear message.
"I said, 'I think this is our Derby horse,'" Contessa said. "This was the horse I really wanted."
Contessa wasn't talking about the 16th running of the Virginia Derby, which is set for an 8:12 p.m. post time Saturday. He was talking about the Kentucky Derby.
After starting to work with Rydilluc, Contessa got an even better idea of what he had to work with in his stable. Rydilluc, who was bred in Kentucky and sired by seven-time stakes winner Medaglia D'Oro, has won all four of his starts on turf, including a victory last month in the Penn Mile and in March in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
The big pre-Kentucky Derby test for Rydilluc came in April in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. It was Rydilluc's first run on an artificial surface.
Breaking from an unfavorable outside gate position in the No. 13 slot, he finished fourth in the race over one-mile-and-one-eighths. It was the worst finish for Rydilluc since he came in fifth last October at Belmont Park in a maiden special weight event — the first race of his career.
Nursing a slight foot bruise after the Blue Grass Stakes, Rydilluc was brought back to New York and Contessa pondered alternatives to the Kentucky Derby. After winning the Penn Mile, a move up in distance to the Virginia Derby seemed like a logical test, but it obviously comes with questions for Contessa.
"A mile-and-a-quarter is very much a specialty distance," said Contessa regarding the distance Rydilluc has never traveled in a race. "If you want to run in it, you've got to find out if your horse wants to go that far. It's trial by fire."
If all goes well for Rydilluc at Colonial Downs, Contessa will steer his horse next month to the Secretariat Stakes, a Grade I turf race over a mile-and-a-quarter in Arlington, Ill. If Rydilluc doesn't do well in the Virginia Derby, Contessa will send him next month to the Hall of Fame Stakes, a turf race over a mile-and-1/16 at Saratoga Race Course.
"I feel like we're kind of sitting right in the middle of a 'Y' right now," Contessa said. "This race is going to say a lot about whether we're going to pursue the Grade I Secretariat, or whether we're going to head to Saratoga and shorten him up in distance a little bit."
Purse: $500,000 (Grade II)