Gary Tanaka's Pico Central wore down favored Strong Hope in the stretch to win the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on the Memorial Day card at Belmont Park.
After a successful career in his native country, Pico Central is undefeated in four U. S. starts. Previous to the Metropolitan, the horse won the San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita and the Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct.
Ridden by Alex Solis for trainer Paulo Lobo, Pico Central played a stalking role as Strong Hope took the early lead, setting fractions of :23 2/5, :46, and 1:10 for the first three-quarters of a mile. Pico Central, second early before dropping back behind Azeri, rallied in the stretch and wore down Strong Hope, who dropped back to finish third. Pico Central wwon by three-quarters of a length over longshot Bowman's Band, who rallied late. The final time for a mile over a fast track was 1:35 2/5.
The 3-1 second choice, Pico Central paid $8.90, $5.60, and $3.40. Bowman's Band was worth $13.20 and $6.50, with Strong Hope paying $2.80. Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner, finished fifth, with Horse of the Year Azeri eighth in the nine-horse field.
A 5-year-old son of Spend a Buck bred in Brazil by Haras Frontiers PAP, Pico Central has won eight of 12 starts.
Lobo said he believed the horse's post position just inside Funny Cide, who was on the far outside in the nine-horse field, played a role in the victory.
"I was very confident because he is a great horse," Lobo said. "I think it's the toughest race of the year so far."
Lobo said the horse will return to his stable base in California, with no decision on where he will race next.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said the wet conditions may have been a factor in Strong Hope's finish. Although there was rain throughout the day, the track was rated fast. "I'm always disappointed when I don't win," Pletcher said. "Maybe the track played a part in it. It seems like a slow race for the caliber of horses that ran, but we got a clean trip and a good ride."