Gary Tanaka's Pico Central disposed of Cajun Beat and early leader Speightstown with less than a furlong left and drew away to an easy four-length victory in the $500,000 Vosburgh (gr. I) for top sprinters at Belmont Park.
The tenacious Pico Central, a Brazilian-bred 5-year-old son of Spend a Buck ridden by Victor Espinoza for trainer Paulo Lobo, won for the first time in the United States at the six-furlong distance. This was the first time that the Vosburgh was contested at three-quarters of a mile and it was completed in 1:09 3/5 on a track listed as fast.
Speightstown, the 4-5 favorite, was edged for second by a half-length by Voodoo, with 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Cajun Beat settling for fourth, a head behind Speightstown, in his first start since March 27.
Pico Central is not nominated to the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but Lobo and Tanaka indicated they would make a decision soon on whether to pay the penalty to enter him. It can be argued that he has done enough to earn an Eclipse Award for leading sprinter already.
Considering his record in the Empire State, Lobo could decide to skip the Sprint and stay in New York for the $350,000 Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct on Nov. 27.
Winner of the Metropolitan Mile Handicap (gr. I) in his only other start at Belmont Park May 31, Pico Central erased memories of his third-place finish in the Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar in his last start Aug. 15.
Pico Central has won four of six since being purchased by Tanaka and transferred to the United States in January. In addition to the Met Mile, he won the Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct and the San Carlos (gr. II) at Santa Anita. The $300,000 winner's share pushed his earnings this year to $1,104,000.
"As for the Breeders' Cup, we will decide about that next week," Lobo said. "He'll go back to California on Tuesday and we'll see how he does then. He doesn't have to run in the Breeders' Cup to become sprint champion. We beat Speightstown and Cajun Beat here and won three grade I races. If anything, we'll look at the Cigar Mile.
"I was concerned about him coming into the race, because he didn't run that well at Del Mar. Today, he proved to be a great horse in my eyes. He was perfect -- and he ran like hell."
Speightstown, ridden by John Velazquez, took the early lead with an opening quarter mile in :22 3/5 but soon came under pressure from Pico Central on his outside. Cajun Beat, with Cornelio Velasquez aboard, could not keep up with the early speed but moved up along the rail on the turn for home and was one of the four, along with Voodoo, who were abreast coming into the stretch.
Speightstown continued to set the pace while under pressure in :45 3/5 and :57.
They battled down the lane but Pico Central kicked on when urged on by Espinoza inside of the eighth pole. Voodoo, at 23-1, rallied in the final 50 yards to be second.
"He's a very nice horse," said Espinoza. "He was very sharp out of the gate, and we didn't have to do too much with him. By the three-eighths pole, he was dragging me, just cruising. But I knew I had to wait, and at the eighth-pole is when I told him to go. As for Speightstown, I wasn't worried too much about him. When he got to the three-eighths pole, I saw that he was in a little bit of trouble. I said, `I got this one.'"
Pico Central has nine wins in his 14-race career with earnings of $1,148,145.
The 2-1 second choice in the field of five, he paid $6.40, $4 and $2.10. Voodoo returned $13.20 and $2.10. Speightstown's show was $2.10. The exacta was worth $97.50.
"He stumbled a little coming away from there," said trainer Todd Pletcher of Speightstown. "It looked like he recovered and got himself into a decent position after that. I was a little surprised at the time. It was significantly slower than what these horses usually run. I wonder how lively the track was.
"Pico Central got the trip we expected he would get. We didn't quite punch with him down the lane. I don't think (Speightstown) ran his A-race today, but assuming he comes back okay, we'll talk at Lone Star."