03/03/2005 12:00AM

Battaglia must-win situation

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The best-case scenario is they get to keep thinking about the Kentucky Derby, however slim their hopes might be.

The worst case is immediate banishment from the Derby trail. Any horse unable to win the John Battaglia Memorial, which will be run Saturday at Turfway Park for the 24th time, deserves such a fate.

"My horse needs to step it up, and right now," said Pat Byrne, who has traveled from south Florida to be at the Florence, Ky., track to saddle Magna Graduate, one of the favorites for the $100,000 Battaglia. "There's no more time to fool around. Either he shows us something Saturday, or any kind of talk about the Derby is just nonsense."

Besides Magna Graduate, two other 3-year-olds enter the 1 1/16-mile Battaglia with glimmering Derby aspirations: Ultimate, a Nick Zito-trained colt who earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure in a Gulfstream Park maiden victory nearly four weeks ago, and Malibu Moonshine, a Maryland invader who won minor stakes in each of his last two starts.

For , an Honor Grades colt whom Elisabeth Alexander purchased privately last fall for a mid- to high-six-figure sum, the Battaglia figures as a highly pivotal race. By easily winning a Keeneland allowance in October, Magna Graduate hinted that he might develop into a classics hopeful. But following defeats in his two subsequent starts, the Kentucky Jockey Club in November and the Aventura at Gulfstream in January, his Derby hopes are hanging by a thread.

The Battaglia is the local prep for the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes, the Turfway showcase that will be run March 26.

"Since this is a prep for the Lane's End, hopefully we can win," said Byrne. "I've got a nice-moving colt with a lot of stamina in his pedigree, and I think he's got a lot of talent. Hopefully it will start showing Saturday."

Magna Graduate, with Dean Sarvis to ride, drew post 6 in a field of nine. (post 4), trained by Maryland legend King Leatherbury, the logical third betting choice.

The Battaglia is named for the late general manager of Turfway, which was still known as Latonia when John Battaglia died in 1981. Battaglia's son, Mike, is the longtime racecaller at Turfway and a commentator on NBC Sports racing broadcasts.

The Battaglia is the 10th of 12 Saturday races on a card that starts at 1:10 p.m. Eastern.