Updated on 09/17/2011 7:01PM

Pico Central already proved himself


NEW YORK - The Cigar Mile at Aqueduct Saturday, the last Grade 1 race in New York until the Wood Memorial April 9, has attracted an entertaining field of high quality. The question is whether the Cigar outcome deserves to have any bearing on the Eclipse Award for champion sprinter.

Pico Central, the 6-5 morning-line favorite for the Cigar, will be trying to clinch the title as he caps off what already has been a remarkable campaign. The Brazilian import has won three Grade 1 races this year, more than any American male and a total matched only by the fillies Ashado, Azeri, and Sightseek. In some seasons, a Cigar victory might even have made him a legitimate Horse of the Year alternative to such recent winners as Kotashaan, Favorite Trick, or Charismatic.

Instead, he doesn't even seem to have locked up the sprint championship. Speightstown has the same 5-for-6 record as Pico Central and a victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. That was his only Grade 1 victory, but in public opinion polls, Pico Central seems to have only a slight edge for the title.

The situation is complicated by the presence of Kela, the second choice in the Cigar. Kela won the O'Brien at Del Mar when Pico Central misfired and ran a bad third in his only loss of the year. Kela then finished second to Speightstown in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. If he were to finish in front of Pico Central in the Cigar, some would argue that Kela had beaten Pico Central twice, and lost to Speightstown in their only meeting, and therefore Speightstown deserves the title.

Speightstown was an outstanding horse and an admirable story, returning from injuries and two long absences to bloom as a 6-year-old. He's as good as some recent sprint champions and would be no disgrace to any roster of Eclipse winners. Still, Pico Central deserves the nod even if he runs dead last in the Cigar.

In addition to his 3-1 edge in Grade 1 victories, Pico Central beat Speightstown the only time they met, in the Vosburgh at Belmont Oct. 2. Speightstown clearly failed to run his best race that day, and it would have been fun to see what would have happened if he did, but he didn't. Ideally, Pico Central would have run in the Breeders' Cup, but his connections understandably balked at supplementing him for an outrageously punitive fee of $200,000.

The Breeders' Cup Sprint may count more than any other individual race, but it does not outweigh the combination of the Carter, Met Mile, and Vosburgh. Whether or not Pico Central wins the Cigar, he has earned the cigar as the best sprinter of 2004.

Holiday turkey at Aqueduct

This was not a festive Thanksgiving for horseplayers who handicapped the holiday card at Aqueduct or trudged out to Ozone Park for an 11 a.m. start. Following a long delay after the daily double in which post time for the third race was initially moved back by 22 minutes so the track could be harrowed and floated, the balance of the card was abruptly canceled when the jockeys refused to ride over a track they considered unsafe.

New Yorkers are used to cancellations following severe weather episodes during the frigid inner-track months, but it was 64 degrees and clear outside when this card was scrapped, and there had been very little rain since Wednesday's full card was run over a sloppy but safe and formful track. A track press release said that the track surface was "deteriorating" amid "unseasonably warm" weather.

Something seems to have gone awry in recent months with either the maintenance of New York's racing surfaces, the explanations given to the public for frequent and inconvenient changes, or both. Throughout the Saratoga meeting, races were carded for the grass 48 hours in advance, two days of sunshine would follow, and then the races would be switched to the main track a few hours before post time. The grass course at Aqueduct has had serious problems this fall, and it has been a sheer guessing game as to if and when races would stay on the turf.

These are frustrating times for Aqueduct bettors, who continue to be bedeviled by a new tote system that appears to have been installed without sufficient testing and training. Nearly a month after the system made its debut Oct. 27, customers, tellers, and phone-betting operators are still struggling with a counterintuitive interface that makes various box and wheel bets difficult to place or even to read and confirm. The tote system is still posting incorrect and confusing will-pays, and on at least one occasion there were incorrect payoffs, albeit in the public's favor and at the tote company's expense.

As the New York Racing Association begins its bid for a franchise renewal under new management, it needs to look at not only the complex political and structural issues involving the sport but also at the mechanics of putting on a reliable racing program and accepting wagers on it.