07/29/2005 12:00AM

Pico Central ripe for upset

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Pico Central, at left under Victor Espinoza, could be rusty making his first start since March in Sunday's Bing Crosby Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The favorite is vulnerable in the Grade 1 on Sunday at Del Mar. This revelation is hardly news to anyone familiar with the impressive career of Pico Central.

Among the elite sprinters last year, Pico Central is racing Sunday for the first time since a fourth-place finish in March in Dubai. And guess what? The 6-year-old is rusty.

"I know that he needs a race," trainer Paulo Lobo said. "He can win on Sunday, but if he runs well, I'm going to be very, very happy."

Pico Central, winner of three Grade 1's last year, also is burdened by a heavy 123-pound impost in the $300,000 handicap.

Pico Central enters as the most accomplished of the Bing Crosby entrants, having won nine races and more than $1.2 million from 19 starts. But Sunday is merely a starting point.

"Our main goals are the races in October," Lobo said, referencing two six-furlong races at Belmont Park - the Vosburgh on Oct. 1 and Breeders' Cup Sprint on Oct. 29.

The BC Sprint is the ultimate goal for most in the Bing Crosby field, including 3-year-old upstart Storm Wolf. Winner of the Grade 2 Lazaro Barrera for 3-year-olds in his fourth career start, Storm Wolf is facing older for the first time. Is he fast enough?

"That's one of the reasons we put him in there, to find out if he's good enough to go against hardened, battled, seasoned warriors," trainer Bruce Headley said.

Based on speed figures, Storm Wolf is up against it. The Beyer par - the figure typically required to win the Crosby - is 113. Storm Wolf's top figure is 104.

Headley recognizes the challenge. "I don't think this is a race you can make a mistake in because they're going too fast," he said.

Storm Wolf won the Triple Bend by six lengths despite a slow start from the rail. With a clean break, Headley believes "he would have won by 10."

Others in the Bing Crosby field have something to prove. Aside from Pico Central, the field is a veritable hodgepodge. Graded stakes winner Areyoutalkintome is a six-furlong specialist who benefits shortening from seven furlongs. But he is drawn down in post 2, and his recent pace figures in six-furlong races are well below the Grade 1 par.

Pt's Grey Eagle won a slowly run Grade 1 Ancient Title last fall

(104 Beyer), and since then has been in all the wrong spots. His most recent start was the Hollywood Gold Cup at 1 1/4 miles. He finished last. Greg's Gold is up in class after a one-other-than allowance victory; Stormin' Lyon has cracked 100 Beyer only once; enigmatic Taste of Paradise adds blinkers.

With knocks on the familiar faces, the Bing Crosby is an ideal spot for a well-qualified shipper. This year there are two - Top Commander and Battle Won. Top Commander won the Grade 3 Count Fleet Handicap in April with a 111 Beyer, had a runner-up finish since, and returns fresh for trainer Cole Norman. The pattern is similar to Norman-trained Beau's Town, who shipped to Del Mar in 2003 to win the Bing Crosby.

Top Commander qualifies on speed figures (111 and 110 Beyer his last two dirt sprints), and drew an outside post. A 6-for-15 veteran with earnings of $192,550, he could be the horse to beat under Garrett Gomez.

Kentucky shipper Battle Won earned back-to-back 107 Beyers winning the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap and finishing second last out in a Grade 3. A seven-time winner of $439,926 from 17 starts, Battle Won arrived at Del Mar nine days ago and has breezed well over the track. Patrick Valenzuela rides.

"He's a nice horse, and if he just takes that one little half-step up, he's one of the best sprinters around," trainer Charles Simon said. "If he's going to be a Breeders' Cup horse, I want to keep testing him at six furlongs."