Hobeau Farm's homebred Smokume overcame his difficult rail post to win the $150,000 Tom Fool Handicap (gr. II) on a sealed Belmont Park main track Sunday.
Under Chantal Sutherland, the 4-year-old gelded son of Smoke Glacken was well in hand on the inside before grabbing the lead on the turn from the pacesetter Gadace's Khamseh. Leading by 3 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, Smokume had to dig in late to hold off Willy o'the Valley by a length in a solid time of 1:21 4/5 for the seven furlongs on sloppy going.
The Allen Jerkens-trained Smokume, who notched his first graded stakes victory, won for the fifth time in nine lifetime starts at Belmont. Smokume was coming off a 2 3/4-length win in a 6 1/2-furlong overnight handicap on a sealed Belmont track June 29.
Jerkens said he had recently decided to slow Smokume's training works and it helped out Sunday.
"It was a longer race than he generally runs in," Jerkens noted. "He handled it okay. I guess he likes the mud, that's for sure. He's a little stronger than he was (last year). His father was awful good and tough, too. He's getting to be like his father, but he's got a ways to go yet. You live and hope in this game."
The Florida-bred Smokume, who was sent off the favorite in his last three starts, was overlooked at 5-1 odds in the field of six Sunday. The 115-pound co-top weight had been off the board in two previous tries at seven panels.
Sutherland, who had only two wins in 62 starts at the Belmont meeting prior to the Tom Fool, won for the third time in four tries aboard Smokume. The victory was her first in a graded stakes in the United States for the two-time Canadian Sovereign winner as leading apprentice rider.
"I've got to know Smokume so well that I knew to wait, wait, wait," Sutherland said. "He's never been this calm. He was very relaxed today. When I asked him, he gave me more than I expected. I think he's getting better. This feels pretty cool. This is everything you've dreamed of. Hopefully, the ball keeps rolling."
She had the chestnut well positioned after a clean break as Gadace's Khamseh set a strong pace (:22 2/5, :45) while racing off the rail. Smokume, challenging along the inside, was able to get the lead at the head of the turn and took his rivals slightly wide as he assumed command coming into the stretch. Well clear by 3 1/2 lengths after six furlongs in 1:08 4/5, he began to labor inside the eighth pole but was strong enough to hold off Willy o'the Valley, who came on late for Cornelio Velasquez.
Clever Electrician, who tracked the leaders in fourth most of the way, turned in a mild bid to get third under Eibar Coa, 2 1/2 lengths behind Smokume. Swingforthefences, the 2-1 choice of the public, was not a factor while finishing fourth, 5 1 1/4 lengths behind the winner. Gadace's Khamseh and Voodoo trailed. Shaniko was scratched.
Smokume improved his record to eight wins and three places in 17 career starts while pushing his earnings to $419,320. Smokume is pointed for the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (gr. II) at six furlongs on Aug. 13.
The second-longest shot in the field, he paid $12, $5.30, and $3.80. Willy o'the Valley returned $5 and $3.20, completing a $57.50 exacta. Clever Electrician paid $3.60.