04/18/2003 12:00AM

Sticking to dirt, for now


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - You might see Gander running in grass races this year, but it probably won't be in next Saturday's $100,000 Fort Marcy Handicap at Aqueduct.

Gander, last year's champion older male New York-bred, is among 50 horses nominated to the Grade 3 Fort Marcy, the first grass stakes in New York this year.

Gander, a 7-year-old with $1.6 million in earnings, is more likely to run in the $75,000 Kings Point, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race for New York-breds on closing day of the Aqueduct meet, May 4. Gander finished second in last year's Kings Point and was eighth in the race three years ago.

John Terranova, who trains Gander for brothers Mike and Ted Gatsas, said the 1 1/16-mile Fort Marcy would be a possibility only if the race is rained off the turf.

But Terranova hasn't ruled out running Gander on the turf this year. He has three runner-up finishes in four starts on the grass, including a second to Hap in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham Park in June 2001, the last time Gander ran on the turf.

"The turf is something Mike [Gatsas] and I have talked about for this year," said Terranova as he watched Gander gallop around Belmont Park's main track on Friday morning. "We may try him again on the turf, even though he hasn't been doing bad on the dirt. We're taking a different approach with him this year and letting him tell us when he is ready to run. Before, we jumped in aggressively early in the year in big races and then had to step back and rebuild his confidence. As the years go on, we don't want to go crazy early in the season."

In his 2003 debut at Gulfstream Park on March 21, Gander put in a late run to win an optional claimer by 1 1/2 lengths under Jerry Bailey.

"Gander was kind of sleeping back there, but the [leaders] slowed up a bit and he kicked in," Terranova said. "He's been doing great since then."

Last year, Gander won the Empire Classic on New York Showcase Day at Belmont and also finished second in the Grade 1 Woodward behind Lido Palace.

The racing office anticipates a fairly large field for the Fort Marcy. Among the probable runners are stakes winners Haggs Castle, Patrol, Saint Verre, Tap the Admiral, Union Place, and Whata Brainstorm. Other expected starters are Mystic Salse, Run to Victory, Serazzo, Sohaib, and Turn Back the Time.

Among those listed as possible starters is Rouvres, a Group 1 winner in France who finished second in his last start in the Grade 2 Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds on March 23.

Weights for the Fort Marcy will be released on Sunday.

* Shannon Uske, a 10-pound apprentice, won her first race in New York aboard Lilah in Friday's fifth race for trainer Allen Jerkens. It was the 17-year-old Uske's second career win. In her career debut, she rode Lilah to victory at Calder on Jan. 2.

* The sun struggled to make an appearance for the first grass race of the year on Friday, an unseasonably chilly day. Queens Carousel, who pressed the early pace, won the 1 1/16-mile maiden race for fillies and mares and covered the distance in 1:44.72. The course was listed as firm, even though Aqueduct's turf has had its fair share of April showers recently. John Velazquez rode Queens Carousel, the 2-1 favorite, for trainer Todd Pletcher.