Smokey Fire wins the Highlander Stakes.

Smokey Fire wins the Highlander Stakes.

Michael Burns Photography

Long-Missing Smokey Fire Scores in Highlander

In first start in 20 months, 7-year-old sweeps past Essence Hit Man on Woodbine turf.

Smokey Fire, making his first start in nearly 20 months, overcame traffic problems in upper stretch to sweep past the leaders close to home for a 1 1/4-length win in the $230,726 Highlander Stakes (Can-IIT) on the Woodbine turf June 24 (VIDEO).

The Highlander was the first of three graded turf stakes on Woodbine's Queen's Plate program.

Owned by Jim Dandy Stable, 7-year-old Smokey Fire triumphed at odds of 17-1 for trainer Sid Attard. The trainer's other entrant in the six-furlong event, Signature Red , was going for his third straight win in the Highlander but was scratched beforehand by stewards.

Ridden by Eurico Da Silva, Smokey Fire defeated reigning Canadian sprint champion Essence Hit Man, who threatened to go gate-to-wire in the Highlander after opening a 2 1/2-length advantage at mid-stretch. But Smokey Fire, angled to the outside for the drive after being trapped behind rivals, was too much to contain.

Smokey Fire was timed in a swift 1:07.77 on firm going, slightly off the course mark of 1:07.39 set in 2008 by Starticus.

“He was running very focused,” Da Silva said. "He kicked in and he was running strong. He was in great shape.”

Essence Hit Man, looking to win for the first time in three starts on the Woodbine turf, set heated fractions of :21.93 and :43.83 for Jesse Campbell, putting away Artic Fern and Fatal Bullet on the turn. Essence Hit Man, who nosed out Gypsy Ring and Justin Stein for second, had a three-race win streak ended. Well-backed Fiddlers Patriot was a neck farther back in fourth.

Surfrider, the 9-5 favorite in the field of nine, came up empty in the stretch and finished last.

A gelding by Smoke Glacken out of the Housebuster mare Destroyer, the gray Smokey Fire had not raced since finishing fifth in an allowance event on Woodbine's Polytrack Oct. 31, 2010. Smokey Fire had proven his ability on turf two months earlier when he won the seven-furlong Play the King (Can-IIT) by a neck. He now has three wins and three seconds from seven tries on the Woodbine lawn.

A ligament problem forced Smokey Fire to miss the entire 2011 season, Attard said. He was training earlier this year at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and Keeneland before shipping back to Woodbine in May.

Attard was glad to see Smokey Fire find his way back to the winner’s circle. “When he was so far back, I was worried,” the veteran conditioner said. “I didn’t want to see him get stuck in traffic. He ran a great race.”

Mel P. Lawson bred Smokey Fire in Ontario.

Improving his career mark to 8-3-1 in 15 races, Smokey Fire earned $140,544 for the victory, boosting his career total to $703,173.

Smokey Fire carried 117 pounds and paid $37.50, $14.20, $6.90 as the sixth choice. Essence Hit Man, who toted co-top weight of 121, returned $6.90 and $4.50, completing a $346.80 exacta. Multiple stakes winner Gypsy Ring paid $3.40 to show in a determined effort.

Fiddlers Patriot was followed by Stormy Rush, Bear Tough Tiger, Fatal Bullet, Artic Fern, and Surfrider in the official order.