Gary A. Tanaka's Brazilian-bred Pico Central drew away from heavily favored Strong Hope in a grueling stretch drive Saturday to win the $350,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I) Saturday at Aqueduct by 1 1/4 length.
The second choice of the Wood Memorial Day crowd of 17,354, Pico Central remained undefeated in three starts this year, putting away the favorite after battling on a blazing pace.
"I was a little worried when I saw Strong Hope coming at him," said trainer Paulo Lobo, after Pico Central dueled Don Six through splits of :21 3/5 and :43 2/5 on Aqueduct's fast main track. He withstood the challenge from Strong Hope to win in 1:20 1/5, just one-fifth off the track record set by sprint champion Artax in 1999.
Earlier in the day, Forest Danger won the Bay Shore (gr. III) for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs in 1:20 3/5.
"My horse is a strong fighter," said Lobo. "I'm not really surprised with the way he has run since we got him. He beat some nice horses in Brazil and he has done little wrong since then. We're going back to California on Tuesday and decide where to go from there.
Lobo said a rematch with Strong Hope in the $750,000 Metropolitan Mile (gr. I) on May 31 at Belmont Park was possible.
Pico Central was coming off a two-length win at odds of 43-1 in the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita a month ago. His time in that race, his second in the U.S., was 1:21. He's won seven of 11 overall, earning $210,000 for the victory, which more than doubled his career total to $380,145.
A 5-year-old son of Spend a Buck, Pico Central also has a fan in jockey Alex Solis.
"It sure was fast and this is an amazing horse," Solis said. "I was amazed when I looked at the tote board and saw the times. I know we were going at a nice pace. I was just hoping I would have enough at the end. It was a good stretch duel between two good horses. Luckily mine had the bigger heart today. I knew Strong Hope was going to be coming. I knew at the eighth pole, I had a lot of horse and he gave me a great kick. I think he might be a star in the rising."
"I thought our horse ran super," said Pletcher, whose Strong Hope carried 119 pounds, giving away two pounds to the winner. "When you go in 1:20 1/5 and get beat just a little bit and it's just your second start in a long time ... well, you have to be happy.
"I think the Met Mile is next on our schedule, but we're not sure if we are going to run before then. He ran hard but you can only go so fast."
It was two lengths back to Eye of the Tiger, who was followed by Gygistar, Super Fuse, Don Six, Peeping Tom, Well Fancied and Secret Run. Badge of Silver was a scratch.
Pico Central paid $10.60, $4.20 and $3.30. Strong Hope returned $2.80 and $2.40. Eye of the Tiger's show was $6.