08/12/2004 11:00PM

Pico Central, the lead is all yours

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Pico Central, winning the Met Mile, has won three straight stakes.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The Grade 2 Pat O'Brien Handicap started out as a demanding weekend sprint that would test the mettle of the country's leading sprinter, Pico Central. Then the race began to crumble.

, who drew the rail, may skip the O'Brien and run next Sunday in the Longacres Mile.

From eight entrants, the seven-furlong race Sunday at Del Mar is down to five probable starters and only one front-runner. Without , Domestic Dispute, Taste of Paradise, and Amerindio.

"No one can go with Pico Central now," said Mike Mitchell, who trains Kela. "I wish [Marino Marini] were in there to keep him honest."

Doug O'Neill, who trains Marino Marini, says he wants no part of Pico Central for his colt's first start in three months. O'Neill said Pico Central "is a great horse, and not a horse you want to face off a layoff, going seven-eighths. We want a little easier spot."

From a handicapping perspective, there is relatively little risk Sunday in backing Pico Central. But there is an awful lot at stake for trainer Paulo Lobo and owner Gary Tanaka. Pico Central has won three successive stakes - the Grade 1 Met Mile and Carter handicaps, and the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap - and emerged as the top one-turn horse in the country. Lobo and Tanaka may face a dilemma after Sunday.

A 5-year-old who began his career in Argentina, Pico Central was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, and the supplemental fee for the BC Sprint is steep. "He's not nominated, and $200,000 is a lot of money. It's a tough call," Lobo said. "We're going to decide everything after Sunday."

David Flores rides Pico Central, who is racing for the first time since the May 31 Met Mile, in which he earned a 116 Beyer Figure. In that race, Pico Central sustained a foot injury that curtailed his summer campaign, but recent workouts have been solid.

"He's ready for the race; I believe he's going to run a good race," Lobo said before adding the obligatory caution that "it's a long layoff, and he's going to carry more weight."

Pico Central has won eight races and $830,145 from 12 starts and carries 122 pounds, six more than Kela.

Jay Manoogian owns Kela, who gave Mitchell the first Grade 1 of his training career in the six-furlong Bing Crosby. Kela won by 1 1/4 lengths with a 112 Beyer, but Mitchell says he recognizes the challenge in facing Pico Central.

"He has my respect as the best sprinter in the country, but the one thing you're wondering - is he tight enough?" Mitchell said.

Whereas Pico Central returns from an 11-week layoff, Kela is racing-fit. The O'Brien comes three weeks after the Bing Crosby, which was Kela's seventh win from 22 starts.

Mitchell said Kela is "as good as he's ever been. He loves it down here."

Tyler Baze rides Kela, whom Mitchell said could start again at the meet in the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap, before freshening for the BC Sprint.

Domestic Dispute, winner of the Grade 2 Strub in February, is racing for the first time since finishing sixth in the Dubai World Cup in March.

"It took him a little while to put his weight back on," said trainer Paddy Gallagher. "He hasn't run for a while, but he's trained good and we're looking for a good race from him."

Domestic Dispute has won three races and $603,115 from 17 starts.

Taste of Paradise is wheeling back two weeks after finishing sixth in the San Diego Handicap. Amerindio is an allowance-class 7-year-old with a lifetime best Beyer of 101.