04/07/2004 11:00PM

Right odds makes 'Pico' the pick

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New York - The last major preps for the Kentucky Derby - three weeks away - dominate Saturday's stakes action. Much of the racing public hopes the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park can clarify a run up to the Kentucky Derby that has been more muddled than any other in recent memory.

Because the Kentucky Derby picture is so unsettled, graded stakes earnings, which determine the 20 who are allowed to start in the Derby, is playing a prominent role this year, and there is plenty of it up for grabs Saturday. The Grade 1 Wood Memorial and the Grade 1 Blue Grass are each worth $750,000, and the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby boasts a purse of $1 million.

All three Derby preps also have supporting stakes on their respective cards. The most important of these are the Grade 1, $350,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and the $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes at Keeneland.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Carter Handicap

Strong Hope could not have been more impressive winning his first start of the year at Gulfstream. But Strong Hope will be heavily bet and he is not accustomed to being denied the early lead, which is going to happen. I'm going against him and with Pico Central, who, barring a disastrous start, will have the early lead.

Pico Central also comes into this off a decisive score in the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita. He outran some rapid opponents setting a fast pace, easily drew clear in upper stretch, and held while not really having to do his best. Unfortunately, Pico Central won't be anything close to the 43-1 he was in the San Carlos, but he will be a better price than Strong Hope.

Commonwealth Breeders' Cup

One of those Pico Central outran for the lead in the San Carlos was Marino Marini, who threw in the towel nearing the stretch and wound up last of 10. But Marino Marini is in a perfect rebound spot here, because the early lead is his for the taking, and I'm picking him to go wire to wire.

Marino Marini's U.S. form before the San Carlos was solid. Two starts back, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 111 finishing second in the Palos Verdes. Three starts back, he was beaten a head at 33-1 in the Malibu by Southern Image, who came back to win the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Santa Anita Handicap. Because of his ugly last-out running line, however, Marino Marini could be a decent price.

Arkansas Derby

Smarty Jones has managed to go 5 for 5 so far without me, and I'm not going to jump on him now, not when he has to break from post 11 at low odds. I like Borrego, who is in a good spot to emerge as a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby with a win Saturday.

Borrego finished second in his last two starts and was first in the Sham, in which he was beaten a length by Master David, one of the favorites for Saturday's Wood, while finishing ahead of subsequent San Felipe winner Preachinatthebar. Last time out, Borrego finished between the victorious Wimbledon and third-place Pollard's Vision in the Louisiana Derby. Wimbledon disappointed in the subsequent Santa Anita Derby, but Pollard's Vision came back to romp in the Illinois Derby. Borrego showed in Louisiana that he can close effectively from far back into a fast pace. He showed in the Sham that he can lay close when the pace is moderate. That versatility should help him here.

The Arkansas Derby is the last leg of the Big 3 Pick 3, which begins with the Wood, with the Blue Grass as the middle leg, and I would include Purge and Mr. Jester as backups to Borrego in leg 3.

In the Wood, I like Eddington best, but I wouldn't throw out Master David, who, like Eddington, needs graded earnings. On smaller tickets, I'll also throw in Tapit, just in case trainer Michael Dickinson has another miracle up his sleeve, and Royal Assault, whose closing style can play better away from Gulfstream.

In the Blue Grass, I can't see beyond Lion Heart, who has the best Beyers and should be in control of the pace. Lion Heart will be a short price, which is why the Blue Grass was not a spotlight race, but you can make something out of him in a pick three bet like this.