03/17/2005 1:00AM

Gotham top four offer range of form patterns

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Galloping Grocer drew between two early-speed horses and may have no pace option.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Because of their inherent inconsistency, questions of stable intention, and the fact that so many of the leading 3-year-olds are just now starting to gear up for the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby prep races can be treacherous betting races. But they are fascinating in just about every other regard, and observant players will have lots to learn each weekend from now through the end of April.

Trying to make predictions can be tricky business, but by evaluating the Beyer Speed Figures and other peripheral information, we can form a general idea of what to expect. Form patterns can be designated as positive, negative, or neutral as we look at the top contenders in Aqueduct's one-mile Gotham Stakes, the first race of the New York season that really might mean something down the road.

A field of nine quickly boils down to four major players: Galloping Grocer, Survivalist, Naughty New Yorker, and Byanosejoe.

Maddy's Lion, Distinctive Trick, and Pavo, all sprint stakes winners on the inner track, look like fringe players for purposes of constructing a betting line.

Mr. Congeniality and Lieutenant Danz are outsiders.

The main contenders

Galloping Grocer: Color him somewhere in the neutral-to-negative range. Handicapping is full of gray areas, and there are several shades of gray surrounding this morning-line favorite. Considering he set a fast pace between horses in the Whirlaway and was still on the lead to the stretch call, it can be argued he has a right to improve second time out at 3.

"I thought he ran a real big race in the Whirlaway," said trainer Dominick Schettino. "It was his first start in 77 days, and he was head-and-head through very fast fractions."

But fast fractions or not, Galloping Grocer was 1-2 in that race and was supposed to run roughshod over that field. He did not, and his Beyer fell off several lengths from his Remsen effort. And Galloping Grocer wasn't passed by one horse in the Whirlaway - he was passed by three, including longshot winner Sort It Out, who was then sold and summarily spanked in last week's Louisiana Derby.

The pace scenario for the favorite doesn't figure to get any easier in the Gotham because of the presence of Distinctive Trick and Maddy's Lion, who each won six-furlong stakes on the engine recently. Galloping Grocer drew between those two, and could be sandwiched with few options other than "go" as the pace unfolds.

There are other issues for Galloping Grocer. A bruised foot derailed a scheduled start in the Fountain of Youth, and Schettino (2 for 61 since the close of Belmont's fall meet as the main track opened for racing on Friday) was hoping wintry weather would linger a while longer and transform the Gotham into a two-turn mile on the inner track.

Survivalist: Positive, based on a terrific speed-figure pattern and strong last-out company line.

First time out in nearly four months, Survivalist was off slowly, angled four wide approaching the stretch, and was just getting a head of steam when knocked off stride in midstretch. Even so, his Beyer Figure of 86 slightly exceeded his top juvenile number, which was a very encouraging sign, and he galloped out with good energy past the wire.

Predictably, Survivalist improved several lengths in his follow-up start, with Lasix added, but happened to be in the same field as Sun King and settled for second.

Though he is still eligible for entry-level allowance conditions, it may well be that Survivalist won't see anyone in the Gotham with the talent of Sun King.

Naughty New Yorker: Neutral to positive. He has been campaigning without a meaningful break since the final weekend at Saratoga last summer, but has been hickory enough to compile a steadily developing line of Beyer Figures. His three best figures, though, came in two-turn races, so naturally trainer Pat Kelly would also have preferred to see this race switched to the inner track.

In terms of intent, Kelly said he "just wants to stay here, stay healthy, and get to the Wood." It may be unreasonable to expect a third straight peak effort, with the Gotham essentially a "bridge race" for Naughty New Yorker.

Byanosejoe: Positive. A very interesting horse, and possibly the value of the field, after winning both of his one-turn sprints on the inner track with late runs, and receiving little fanfare.

The last-to-first move of his allowance victory was particularly strong, suggesting long sprints like this are right up his alley. That race also marked his third straight Beyer jump of at least 10 points.

Byanosejoe's only start at one mile was around two turns chasing Diamond Wildcat, who was one of seven wire-to-wire winners on an especially speed-favoring card during the dead of winter.