11/29/2004 12:00AM

Pico Central outdid Speightstown

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NEW YORK - Like the Energizer Bunny, the debate over champion sprinter just keeps going and going. In fact, it seemed to gain momentum in the wake of Pico Central's loss at 4-5 in Saturday's Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Speightstown, the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner and Pico Central's chief opponent for the sprint title, had this to say to the New York Racing Association press staff after he won Cigar Mile with Lion Tamer on Saturday:

"When you break it down, going into this race, Speightstown had beaten Kela and Kela had beaten Pico Central, so everyone had one loss on their record. Now, Pico Central has two. As far as champion sprinter goes, I think the one race that really solidifies the championship is the Breeders' Cup [Sprint]. When you show up on a neutral playing field against everybody and win, if it is close, that's what separates the closeness. I obviously have a biased opinion, but I think if there is anyone out there that was on the bubble, maybe this sways them the other way."

You can't blame Pletcher, a strong contender for an Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer, for electioneering. At the level he plays the game, plugging his horses for championships is part of the job. But there are two things about Pletcher's comment that you can take issue with. First is the inference that since Speightstown beat Kela (Kela finished second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint), and Kela beat Pico Central (in the Pat O'Brien in August), that Speightstown is in some way better than Pico Central. That's sort of like the "Oh yeah, well, my dad can beat up your dad" arguments we had as kids. It sounds good, but it lacks substance, unless the dads really do duke it out.

The other point to take issue with is the suggestion that the sprint division is "close."

In this case, the dads did fight it out. Pico Central and Speightstown did face each other. It was in the Vosburgh at Belmont in early October, and Pico Central won it decisively, by four lengths, leaving Speightstown 4 1/2 lengths behind in third. That was Pico Central's third Grade 1 victory of the year, while Speightstown hadn't won any until the Breeders' Cup Sprint. While you can certainly find fault with the results of the process that grades our stakes races, the grading system must count for something. A 3-1 edge in Grade 1 victories, such as Pico Central has over Speightstown, has to be huge. If it isn't, then grading our stakes races means nothing, and we should forget all about it.

The only reason the sprint division seems as close as it is is that Pletcher, being as respected as he is, has been effectively making a case that would be labeled specious coming from almost anyone else. Okay, the Vosburgh is not the Breeders' Cup Sprint. But there was more on the line in this Vosburgh than usual. With Pico Central facing a $200,000 supplement to run in the $1 million Breeders' Cup race, everyone knew that the Vosburgh was Pico Central's Breeders' Cup Sprint. If you lost to Pico Central in the Vosburgh, you weren't going to get another crack at him soon, so you had to bring your best game to the party. No one's game was nearly good enough for him that day. And, as the Vosburgh had more riding on it than usual, the Sprint had less, because Pico Central wasn't in the starting field.

As for Pico Central's third-place finish in the Cigar Mile, it wasn't the surprise it might seem, even for an odds-on favorite. Pico Central was in trouble in the Cigar 48 hours earlier when he drew the one-hole. Pico Central's only subpar performance this year came in the O'Brien, when he was caught inside in a speed duel. Although jockey Victor Espinoza did a good job by quickly steering Pico Central out to the four path on Saturday, he still had three to four horses right to his outside, goading him into a half-mile in 44.29. Even over the lightning-fast surface at Aqueduct on Saturday, the fractions were still way too fast, and Pico Central understandably weakened late. Clearly, Pico Central is most relaxed early, and most effective, when he can stalk from the outside, as he did when he won the Vosburgh and the Met Mile.

Notes

Is Leroidesanimaux the new favorite for the 2005 Breeders' Cup Mile? He certainly ran well making Saturday's Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park his fifth straight victory, although fellow Bobby Frankel trainee Three Valleys ran a big race to finish third in his American debut. . . . I wish I knew precisely how much Rockport Harbor's foot injury, believed to have been sustained going into the first turn in his win in Saturday's Remsen at Aqueduct, compromised his performance. When Galloping Grocer was put to a drive nearing the quarter pole, it looked like Rockport Harbor, still under a long hold, would win by open lengths. Instead, Rockport Harbor worked hard to hold off a game Galloping Grocer by a neck. . . . Sis City didn't beat much in Saturday's Demoiselle at Aqueduct, but she still dominated the Grade 2, $200,000 race. That, plus a fine fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and a third in the Frizette, makes her a candidate for claim of the year. Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. took her for $50,000 at Saratoga.