08/13/2004 12:00AM

From unknown to phenom to star

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DEL MAR, Calif. - David Flores's first impression of Pico Central occurred shortly after the start of the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita back in March. At 42-1, Pico Central was the second-longest shot in a field of 10. A few strides away from the gate, Flores felt as if he was on the favorite.

"I got him out of the gate, and he was cruising," Flores said. "I had him on a long hold, and right away I knew I had a horse. He didn't give up. He just kept running."

Pico Central won the San Carlos by two lengths, scoring his first stakes win in the United States. Since then, Pico Central, a Brazilian-bred, has only expanded his reputation, winning the Grade 1 Carter and Metropolitan handicaps in New York to rise to the top of the American sprint division.

Sunday at Del Mar, starts as the 122-pound topweight in the $200,000 Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap over seven furlongs. A win would solidify his hold on the national sprint division and move owner Gary Tanaka and trainer Paulo Lobo closer to a decision on whether to supplement Pico Central at a cost of $200,000 to the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30.

"I spoke with Mr. Tanaka two weeks ago and we decided to make the schedule after the Pat O'Brien," Lobo said. "If we run in the Breeders' Cup, we have to supplement, and it's a big amount. I think we want to wait and decide."

Lobo says he is surprised that Pico Central has developed into an Eclipse Award candidate.

While racing in Brazil from March 2002 until May 2003, Pico Central won half of his eight starts and two Group 1 stakes. The first major stakes win, over five furlongs on turf in August 2002, shocked Lobo, who was living in the U.S. at the time but was keeping track of Pico Central. Pico Central was not even a full 3-year-old - he was foaled in October 1999 - when he beat 14 others.

"He did great things in Brazil," said Lobo. "It's like a 3-year-old here winning a Grade 1 in January against older horses. It's a difficult thing to do."

Three races later, in February 2003, Pico Central beat Hard Buck by 5 1/2 lengths in a Group 1 over about a mile on turf. Hard Buck is now based in the United States and has developed into a top turf horse for trainer Kenneth McPeek.

Pico Central arrived at Lobo's Hollywood Park barn last summer.

By 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck, Pico Central made his debut in an optional claimer over 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita last January. Sent off at 37-1, he finished second and was promoted to first after a disqualification. The win attracted little attention, though, since the race was run on Super Bowl Sunday before a small crowd.

Pico Central's victory in the San Carlos Handicap followed, but it was not widely respected because Pico Central was such a longshot.

The win in the Carter Handicap has been Pico Central's most impressive performance of the year. He fought with Strong Hope through early fractions of 21.77 and 43.50 seconds before pulling away to win by 1 1/4 lengths, finishing seven furlongs in 1:20.22.

In the Metropolitan Mile Handicap on May 31, Pico Central bobbled at the start. He fought for the lead to the eighth pole before pulling away to win by three-quarters of a length over Bowman's Band.

A grabbed quarter at the start of the Met Mile prevented Pico Central from running in the Triple Bend Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park last month and forced Lobo to aim for the Pat O'Brien.

Alex Solis was aboard for the Carter and Met Mile, but because Solis is out with an injury, Lobo has turned to Flores.

In the Pat O'Brien, Pico Central may not be pressured early because the speedy , the winner of the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap over six furlongs here last month.

Lobo, who stopped short of predicting victory, knows that Pico Central is at his best when he sets the pace. His form this year has proven he's a world-class sprinter.

"He's coming back from about 2 1/2 months off, but he's doing great," Lobo said. "The races in California are always tough. There will be more speed than in the East. When you ship a horse to America, you know you will find the best horses in the world, especially in the short distances. I think it's tougher.

"The horse has kind of surprised us."