11/27/2004 12:00AM

Lion Tamer goes last to first

Lion Tamer rolls to a 1 1/4-length victory in Saturday's Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct after rallying from last to take the lead in upper stretch.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Of all the horses that trainer Todd Pletcher ran at Pico Central this year, Lion Tamer had to be considered the least likely to beat him.

But Lion Tamer did just that, rallying from last to make the lead in upper stretch and then persevering to a 1 1/4-length victory in Saturday's Grade 1, $350,000 at Aqueduct. Badge of Silver, who chased the pace before falling back, re-rallied to nose out Pico Central for second. Pico Central lost his right hind shoe.

Unforgettable Max, Potrisunrise, Purge, During, and Voodoo completed the order of finish. Kela, the Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up, was scratched after contracting a fever on Friday.

Lion Tamer's first Grade 1 victory could open up the debate for champion sprinter.

Pico Central has won three Grade 1 races - the Carter, Metropolitan Handicap, and Vosburgh - and the Grade 2 San Carlos, while Speightstown, who lost to Pico Central in the Vosburgh, won the Breeders' Cup Sprint and a trio of Grade 2 stakes.

Pico Central, a 5-year-old Brazilian-bred, did not run in the Breeders' Cup because it would have cost $200,000 to supplement to the race. Asked if his horse should be champion, trainer Paulo Lobo said, "Of course."

Pletcher, who also trains Speightstown, naturally disagrees.

"As far as champion sprinter goes, I think the one race that really solidifies the championship is the Breeders' Cup," said Pletcher, who had sent out Strong Hope, Speightstown, and Purge against Pico Central this year. "When you show up on a neutral playing field against everybody and win, if it is close, that's what separates the closeness."

Pico Central, breaking from the rail, tugged jockey Victor Espinoza to the front and battled with Purge and Badge of Silver through fractions of 22.47 seconds and a half-mile in 44.29.

Meanwhile, Lion Tamer was last under Jose Santos before making a four-wide sweep entering the far turn. Lion Tamer was right outside of Pico Central and Badge of Silver turning for home. Lion Tamer put a head in front approaching the eighth pole, and went on for the win.

"He got in the bridle and he was moving," Santos said. "I said, 'He's had enough, I better go.' I saw Pico Central in front of me and said, 'That's the horse to beat. If I get there before turning for home I have a better chance to win the race.' "

Lion Tamer, a 4-year-old son of Will's Way owned by Michael Tabor, covered the one mile in 1:33.46 and returned $26 to win.