03/17/2005 1:00AM

'Grocer' needs to step it up

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Galloping Grocer must run well in the Gotham to remain a Kentucky Derby prospect.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - It is not a must-win situation, but it's close. For Galloping Grocer to be taken seriously as a Kentucky Derby contender, he must improve upon his fourth-place finish in last month's Whirlaway Stakes when he runs in Saturday's $150,000 Gotham at Aqueduct.

Considering Galloping Grocer was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths in the Whirlaway - his first start in 77 days - any step forward in performance in the Grade 3 Gotham could equal a step into the Aqueduct winner's circle.

will face eight rivals in the Gotham, a one-turn mile race designed as a stepping-stone to the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 9. Naughty New Yorker, second in the Whirlaway, heads the list of challengers, which also includes Pavo, Survivalist, Byanosejoe, and Maddy's Lion.

The winter was unkind to Dominick Schettino, the trainer of Galloping Grocer who went 1 for 46 during Aqueduct's inner-track season. The winter was only slightly kinder to Galloping Grocer, who besides finishing fourth in the Whirlaway, suffered a cut to a hind leg in that race, and then a bruised foot, which forced him to miss the Fountain of Youth.

Galloping Grocer's two most recent workouts - including a strong six-furlong move in 1:12.93 on Monday - demonstrated those physical issues are behind him.

Backing up to a one-turn mile in the Gotham is not what Schettino had in mind, but staying home was preferable to shipping to places such as Tampa Bay Downs or Turfway Park. Moreover, Galloping Grocer is 3 for 3 around one turn, including a 7 1/2-length romp over Naughty New Yorker in last October's Sleepy Hollow Stakes, a one-mile race at Belmont.

"I need to see a good race," Schettino said Thursday morning. "Does he need to win for the Wood? No. I would like to see him one-two."

Schettino feared drawing an inside post, and Galloping Grocer will break from post 3 under new rider Mike Luzzi. The good news is Distinctive Trick, one of the speed horses in the race, will break from the rail.

"You need racing luck from that inside post," Schettino said. "Mike is riding excellent right now. I'll leave that up to him."

While Schettino and his owner, Robert Rosenthal, have the Kentucky Derby in their sights, trainer Pat Kelly has it on the backburner for Naughty New Yorker. Kelly just wants to get Naughty New Yorker to the Wood, but needs this race to take him there.

Kelly likes the way has progressed through the winter, putting forth two good efforts in the Count Fleet and Whirlaway.

"He's run good races, he's matured," Kelly said. "Sometimes 2-year-olds go one way, sometimes they go another; each little piece we've thrown at him he's handled fine. I'm anxious to get to the Wood."

ships up from Florida off two second-place finishes in allowance races at Gulfstream. The last time he was in New York, Survivalist won a one-turn mile maiden race by 8 1/2 lengths.

Pavo and Byanosejoe offer the most value in the Gotham. Pavo was a fast-closing second in the Capossela. Byanosejoe, owned in part by New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, made a strong sustained move winning an entry-level allowance race going six furlongs. Maddy's Lion won the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at six furlongs, but his trainer, John Pregman, said he will be better going longer.