01/06/2005 1:00AM

Speightstown should nip Pico Central for title


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - If handicapping actual races were as easy as handicapping the Eclipse Awards, we would all be rolling in dough.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out most of the divisional winners. Declan's Moon as 2-year-old male; Sweet Catomine as 2-year-old filly; Smarty Jones as 3-year-old male; Ashado as 3-year-old filly; Ghostzapper as older male; Kitten's Joy as male turf horse; Ouija Board as female turf horse; and Ghostzapper as Horse of the Year. Any other winner in these categories would truly be a shock.

Among the older fillies and mares, it's a reasonably close call between Azeri and Sightseek, who split their two meetings. Each won three Grade 1 stakes, with nearly identical earnings - Azeri with $1,035,000 and Sightseek with $1,011,350. Both were somewhat erratic as well. Azeri lost three times at odds-on, and Sightseek lost at 2-5, 3-5, and 6-5.

But even though they're close on paper, Azeri has to be the favorite if you're making an odds line, not only for sentimental reasons, but for surpassing the $4 million mark in earnings and undertaking the more ambitious campaign. When she wasn't taking on males in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Met Mile or sprinting in the Humana Distaff, Azeri won Grade 1 races at Oaklawn Park, Saratoga, and Keeneland.

Sightseek, meanwhile, posted all three of her Grade 1 victories at Belmont Park against a total of just 11 opponents and went 1 for 4 everywhere else.

It's not a slam dunk for Azeri, but she got my vote and is clearly leading in the polls.

The real drama, though, is in the sprint division, where Pico Central and Speightstown are exceedingly close, whether you examine their records backward, forward, or sideways.

Consider this rundown of their exploits last year:

Races won: Pico Central 5, Speightstown 5.

Graded stakes wins: Pico Central 4, Speightstown 4.

Top Beyer: Pico Central 116, Speightstown 117.

Average Beyer for graded stakes wins: Pico Central 114.75, Speightstown 115.

Average weight carried in graded stakes wins: Pico Central 119, Speightstown 120.

In addition, neither horse needed to carry his racetrack around with him: Pico Central won on both coasts, and Speightstown barnstormed to wins at Gulfstream, Churchill, Belmont, Saratoga, and Lone Star.

There really is no right choice between the two. Those who favor Pico Central can make a case by citing his three Grade 1 wins - the Carter, Met Mile and Vosburgh - to Speightstown's one, the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Also, Pico Central beat Speightstown when they met for the only time in the Vosburgh Stakes.

I don't believe it's that cut and dried, however, and my vote went to Speightstown for the following reasons.

First, even though the Grade 1 slate was 3-1 in favor of Pico Central, I believe the caliber of horses that Speightstown beat was as good, if not better, than what Pico Central beat. Last year's Carter, for example, was not exceptionally strong. Runner-up Strong Hope won a pair of Grade 2 races at middle distances at age 3 - the Jim Dandy and Dwyer - but he has never won a graded sprint stakes. Third-place finisher Eye of the Tiger was 3 for 14 at that point and his only stakes win was the Grade 3 Affirmed at 1 1/16 miles in 2003. Fourth-place finisher Gygistar notched his only Grade 1 win in a sloppy King's Bishop at age 3, and he had gone 0 for 6 in graded stakes from then until the Carter. The order of finish was rounded out by Super Fuse, who was 2 for his last 17; Don Six, who had blown clear leads in the ungraded Paumonok and Grade 3 Toboggan in his previous two starts; Peeping Tom, fifth in the Toboggan and beaten in a classified allowance in his two most recent starts; Well Fancied, coming off winter-time stakes wins in the Toboggan and General George; and Secret Run, who six starts earlier had been claimed for $40,000. That is not exactly an all-star lineup.

In the Met Mile, the closest finisher to Pico Central was Bowman's Band. Now, don't get me wrong, Bowman's Band is a nice horse, one who once ran well enough to win the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup. But speaking from my own frustrating experience, anyone who ever needed Bowman's Band for a major cash-out in a spot where he was favored has a drawer full of tough-beat horror stories.

In the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Speightstown beat a field that included no less than six Grade 1 winners. That should trump Pico Central's Carter and Met Mile.

Second, Speightstown gets major points with me for showing up at Lone Star and taking on all comers. I have an aversion to bestowing awards on a horse when his connections take the path of least resistance, especially when the horse turns up in an easier spot a month later and gets beat.

Third, Speightstown only misfired once. He gets a mulligan for his loss to Pico Central in the Vosburgh, which, after all, was not his major objective of the fall.

After all, Pico Central had his off days, too. He was 2-5 in the Pat O'Brien and was beaten nearly six lengths by Kela. Does that mean Kela should get more Eclipse votes than Pico Central? Of course not.

The prediction: Speightstown, in one of the closest Eclipse votes ever.