12/27/2001 1:00AM

Grundlefoot hitting peak for Gallant Fox


JAMAICA, N.Y. - The last time Gary Capuano saddled a horse at Aqueduct, he left with the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

The stakes won't be nearly as high on Saturday, but Capuano is hoping for similar success when he ships Grundlefoot in from Maryland to run in the $100,000, Grade 3 Gallant Fox Handicap over Aqueduct's inner track. Grundlefoot will be the first horse Capuano has run at Aqueduct since Captain Bodgit won the 1997 Wood Memorial before losing a heart-breaking head decision to Silver Charm in the Kentucky Derby.

Grundlefoot did not develop into a classics horse for Capuano as a 3-year-old. As a 4-year-old, however, Grundlefoot has improved tremendously and rides a three-race winning streak into the 1 5/8-mile Gallant Fox. Overall, he is 10 for 26 and has won his last four starts on dirt.

"He just has gotten better and better as he gets older," Capuano said. "I thought that would happen even when he was 2. He's a big, rangy kind of horse who the older he gets the better he's going to get and the farther he's going to run."

In winning his last three starts - all ungraded stakes - Grundlefoot has run distances from 1 1/16 miles to 1 3/16 miles. Capuano was most impressed with Grundlefoot's 5 1/4-length victory in the nine-furlong Walter Haight Handicap on Dec. 15, citing "the way he did it, the way he went by those horses with no effort."

Grundlefoot, who will break from post 8 under Travis Dunkelberger and 119 pounds, will meet a tougher field on Saturday than in his recent races. With 13 runners, the field is led by Coyote Lakes, who could join Stymie, Hitchcock, Big Spruce, and Michelle Can Pass as the only horses to win back-to-back runnings of this race.

Coyote Lakes makes his fourth consecutive appearance in the Gallant Fox. Before winning it on New Year's Day, he was second in 1998 and 10th in 1999. Coyote Lakes has a 6-2-0 record from 10 inner track starts and is coming off a terrific allowance win at 12 furlongs in which he dueled with Banner Headline through wicked fractions before drawing clear late. While Levine would like to see Coyote Lakes close to the pace again, he doesn't want another suicide duel.

"If there was quality behind us last time, we both would have got beat," said Levine, who won this race in 1998 with Aavelord.

If Coyote Lakes wants the lead again, he may have to battle early with Paynes Bay, Top Official, and Banner Headline. That could set things up well for a closer such as Grundlefoot or topweighted A Fleets Dancer.

A Fleets Dancer, a son of Afleet, could top $1 million in earnings with a win in the Gallant Fox.

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