07/28/2005 11:00PM

Time to bet against Pico Central

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Storm Wolf is lightly raced but extremely talented. He should offer good betting value in the Bing Crosby.

PHOENIX - Pico Central may still be the best sprinter in the country. He may go on and win the Vosburgh and even the Breeders' Cup Sprint, should his connections opt to supplement and try to snag an Eclipse Award. The Eclipse eluded them last year when they skipped the BC Sprint and saw Speightstown - whom they had handily drubbed in the Vosburgh - skip away with an easy win in the balloting for year-end honors.

But when Pico Central returns in Sunday's Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar, there is reason to believe that this is the time to bet against him. After all, it will be his first start since he was a troubled fourth in Dubai in March.

Even though the Crosby is a Grade 1, it represents a stepping-off point for Pico Central, a race to crank him up for the Vosburgh and points afterward. The only other time Pico Central raced at Del Mar, he did so off a similar layoff. He dueled through hot splits in the Pat O'Brien Handicap that day, came up short in the stretch, and finished third to Kela.

The Crosby may be the best West Coast sprint so far this year. In addition to Pico Central, the race has drawn top Midwest sprinters Battle Won and Top Commander, and West Coast stalwarts Areyoutalkintome, Greg's Gold, and Taste of Paradise.

And while Lost in the Fog is the most ballyhooed 3-year-old sprinter in the country, Storm Wolf deserves plenty of respect - and maybe your financial backing come Sunday.

Storm Wolf is 3 for 4, and his career closely parallels that of Kona Gold, the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 2000 who, like Storm Wolf, was trained by Bruce Headley.

Like Kona Gold, Storm Wolf lost his debut, and then won three races in a row. Following a dazzling maiden win (104 Beyer), Storm Wolf easily won an optional claiming/allowance race (101) and posted an effortless win in the Grade 2 Laz Barrera (94).

Now, this isn't to say Storm Wolf will be the next Kona Gold, but he certainly is off to an auspicious start.

In all three of his victories, Storm Wolf hasn't been asked for his best during the final furlongs. He has been so dominant that rider Alex Solis has basically eased him up just a couple of strides past the wire on all three occasions. Headley had originally targeted the Grade 1 Triple Bend at Hollywood Park earlier this month, but said Storm Wolf actually ran hard in the Barrera so he opted to take this extra time.

And now the Crosby is the acid test. Headley has said he wants to take his time with this guy, as he did with Kona Gold and so many of his best runners. But now Headley dives into the deep end of the pool to find out if Storm Wolf belongs on the path to this year's BC Sprint, or instead needs more time and should target the Grade 1 Malibu at the end of the year at Santa Anita.

Some will view Storm Wolf's easy wins over easier, with less-than-Pico Central types of Beyers, and decide that Storm Wolf isn't quite ready for the Crosby. That's good news for those of us who believe the contrary, as it likely means more money thrown at Pico Central, Battle Won, and others, while Storm Wolf's odds float ever upward.