03/11/2004 1:00AM

Looking for some logical longshots

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The powerful victory by 43-1 longshot Pico Central last Sunday in the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita did more than establish the South American as an elite U.S. sprinter. Pico Central ran fast early, middle, and late to win in 1:21.16 for seven furlongs and earn a 113 Beyer Figure.

For horseplayers who employ pace and speed figures as a fundamental consideration, the $88.40 payoff on Pico Central was either a major score, or a squandered opportunity. Either way, it serves as a reminder that sensible handicapping always includes attention to price. And when the odds are as out of whack as in the San Carlos, anything short of a bold wagering strategy just won't do. Always bet the price. And remember - there can be more than one option in a single race.

A case for Pico Central could have been made based on pace-figure analysis and trainer idiosyncrasy. On both accounts, Pico Central qualified as a candidate to outrun his odds. He was not the only one. That is why the San Carlos was so painful. Logical contenders at giant prices simply do not pop up that often - who would have thought there could be two in the same race?

The other was Taste of Paradise, a graded stakes winner working super for his new trainer. He earned pace and speed figures last year that suggested he had a shot, nothing more. Perhaps he is merely a Del Mar specialist. Moreover, his only graded stakes win was achieved over a speed-biased track. At 62-1, not everything is perfect.

Find a crazy longshot, and sometimes you stop looking for others. That is what happened Sunday. The bets were made, and included a win bet on Taste of Paradise, an exacta from likely winner Bluesthestandard to Taste of Paradise; a smaller exacta wheeling the entire field to Taste of Paradise; and a series of trifectas with Taste of Paradise in the three-hole.

Taste of Paradise lost. It was no big deal. When you bet a 62-1 wacko, you must be prepared for defeat. The idea is to find a horse on which the betting public made a mistake. They blundered with Taste of Paradise, who could have finished closer with a better trip. But he was never going to catch the latest star of the California sprint division.

Pico Central tipped his hand Jan. 25 in his U.S. debut. He set a suicidal pace (21.34 seconds and 43.73) in a three-other-than allowance, put away the odds-on favorite in midstretch, and got collared. His Beyer Figure was only 95, but he earned it the hard way. Based on Quirin-style pace-speed figures generated by Tom Brohamer, Pico Central had equaled the graded-stakes pace par - a lofty 111.

The pace figure meant Pico Central had run fast enough versus allowance foes to stick with graded stakes runners for at least a half-mile, and suggested that Pico Central would be in contention turning for home in the San Carlos.

There were other attributes. Pico Central was a multiple Group 1 winner in Brazil and had blitzed Hard Buck, who subsequently shipped to the U.S. and won a Grade 1 at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22. Pico Central's class, which was established in Brazil, had been validated in North America. Pico Central also had a trainer with a history of upsets.

Paulo Lobo arrived from Brazil less than four years ago and quietly has become one of the best longshot trainers in California. His upsets include Kentucky Oaks winner Farda Amiga ($42); Waya Handicap winner Viernes ($51.60), and Honeymoon Handicap winner Quero Quero at Hollywood Park; Hillsboro Handicap winner Ilha Grande ($45) at Bay Meadows; and allowance winner Savage ($33.40) at Golden Gate. Lobo knows what he is doing.

Heading into the San Carlos, Pico Central's qualities included proven class, a big pace figure, and a low-profile trainer with a high-mutuel history. Pico Central was 43-1. The betting public had made a big, fat mistake in allowing Pico Central to start at such generous odds.

But the mistake was not half as bad as tunnel-vision horseplayers locked onto the other outsider. Failure to consider an additional longshot in the same race meant squandering one of the prime wagering opportunities of the Santa Anita winter meet.

Future wager strategy, Pool 2

Lion Heart's runner-up comeback effort one week ago in the San Rafael Stakes proved he is the most talented 3-year-old in California. Lion Heart set severe fractions, fought back when challenged by eventual winner Imperialism, and finished well clear of third. Barring a mishap, Lion Heart should bury the Santa Anita Derby field on April 3.

If so, he would be a short price on Kentucky Derby Day. That is seven weeks away and a lot can happen, which is why it can be folly to back an individual horse in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Lion Heart may be an exception.

In wagering on Lion Heart at close to the 15-1 early line in Pool 2, a bettor may gain a position of safety if the fastest horse in California makes it all the way to Churchill Downs. Whether he can make it the full 1 1/4 miles will remain an issue. But 15-1 on Lion Heart is essentially a wager that Lion Heart will win the Santa Anita Derby and be 3-1 on Derby Day. It is a risk worth considering.

A different approach may be taken for the Oaks Future Wager. Halfbridled should reemerge as the division leader Saturday in the Santa Anita Oaks, and be the solid favorite in Pool 2. Good. It means the price will increase on the all-others, possibly higher than the generous 10-1 early line. An all-others wager is a bet on one of two things - something unexpected will emerge before the Oaks, or that chaos will reign in the race itself. It made sense at 5-1 in Pool 1, and makes as much sense at 10-1 in Pool 2.