03/15/2005 12:00AM

Schettino taking his well-earned shot

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
"Once you get a taste of a good horse ... it's a feeling like, 'When are you going to get another one?' Grocer's the next one.'' - Trainer Dominick Schettino

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Last fall, after Galloping Grocer established himself as a 2005 Kentucky Derby contender, owner Robert Rosenthal was besieged by unsolicited advice to take the horse from trainer Dominick Schettino and give him to a more established horseman.

"Don't think about 30 people haven't called me to tell me to do that," Rosenthal said in a recent interview.

But Rosenthal has known Schettino for more than a decade and believes in him. In the 1980's, Rosenthal had horses with Dominick Imperio, and Schettino worked for Imperio. When Imperio left the business and Schettino subsequently went out on his own at the end of 1992, Rosenthal went with him.

It has taken a dozen years for Rosenthal to get that once-in-a-lifetime horse, and he was not about to leave Schettino behind.

"He's worked his rear end off. He's diligent. He lives with these horses. He's passionate about these horses and he treats them well," said Rosenthal, who bred and owns Galloping Grocer with Bernice Waldbaum, the widow of the grocery-store magnate Ira Waldbaum, for whom the horse is named.

"He's been a trainer for me of horses that are not the caliber of Galloping Grocer and he's advised me honestly," Rosenthal said. "For me to finally get a real, real good horse - one we think could go all the way - to take the horse away would be disloyal, and that's not my style. I've stuck with him because I'm loyal. He does a fine job, and he's entitled to a shot."

Galloping Grocer, a New York-bred gelded son of A. P Jet, will take another shot at remaining a viable Derby contender on Saturday, when he runs in the Grade 3, $150,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Galloping Grocer, whose lone loss at 2 was by a neck to Rockport Harbor in the Remsen, will seek to move forward off a close fourth-place finish in the Whirlaway on Feb. 12.

For years, high-profile trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito dominated the Triple Crown series. The last two Derbies were won by the reasonably successful horsemen Barclay Tagg and John Servis. Should Schettino win the Derby, it would be a true Cinderella story.

Schettino, 38, has toiled in anonymity on the Belmont backstretch for 12 years. After graduating high school in the Bronx in 1984, Schettino worked for Imperio and Tommy Gullo.

"He always had the eye for horses," Imperio said from Ocala, Fla., where he owns a farm. "He could spot anything that was wrong with one. He was very, very smart, and he listened all the time and he worked hard."

In 1993, Schettino's first full year of training, he won two Grade 3 stakes with Serious Spender, a Phipps family castoff that Schettino bought with a partner, John Caputo.

"Once you get a taste of a good horse like that, when you deal with mediocre horses like I have, you look for them, you know," Schettino said. "After he's gone, and the next couple of years you don't have that kind of horse, it's a feeling like, 'When are you going to get another one?' Grocer's the next one."

Schettino, who trained Galloping Grocer's dam, Little Evie, enjoyed his best year as a trainer in 2004, winning 29 races from 148 starters. For his career, Schettino has 174 winners from 1,693 starters. Going into Wednesday's card, he was enduring a miserable 1-for-45 meet at Aqueduct, and had lost with his last 25 starters.

Schettino said the slump gnaws at him, but he isn't totally shocked by it. Aside from Galloping Grocer and a turf horse named Baymont, the remainder of Schettino's 14 horses are mediocre at best. Schettino said he has about 20 2-year-olds coming to him this spring.

With Galloping Grocer, Schettino demonstrated what he can do with a talented 2-year-old. Schettino didn't rush Galloping Grocer to the races. He debuted at Saratoga on Aug. 22, winning a five-furlong maiden race in 56.88 seconds, just missing the track record of 56.71.

After Galloping Grocer won an allowance race in his next start, Schettino kept him in New York-bred company, winning the Sleepy Hollow, rather than running in the Champagne or Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"He just wasn't ready mentally," Schettino said. "Physically yes, mentally no. I wanted to bring him along gradually, give him the benefit of the doubt to be the best possible horse he could be. If I ran him in the Champagne, probably he could have won if he breaks. Does that help me? Yes. Does it help the horse? You don't know."

Schettino made the somewhat controversial decision of keeping Galloping Grocer in New York this winter rather than taking stalls allotted him in south Florida. Schettino didn't feel he had any other horses that warranted being in Florida, and felt confident he could get through the winter. Moreover, he wanted the gate crew here to work with Galloping Grocer, who had displayed some poor gate habits at 2.

While Rosenthal, the chairman of the board of First Long Island Investors, a wealth management company, admitted to some trepidation about keeping his horse in New York this winter, he doesn't believe that will be the decisive factor in whether he makes it to Louisville on May 7.

"The horse looks great; he's training well," Rosenthal said. "The racetrack that he trains on is a deeper track and, longer term, will work to the horse's advantage if we do make it to Kentucky, which I hope we do."

And he'll be happy to stand next to Schettino in the Churchill Downs paddock.