12/15/2006 12:00AM

Smoke Mountain keeps a-climbing

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Smoke Mountain turned in a strong performance in Thursday's feature race at Fair Grounds, leading every step of the way to win a fourth-level optional claimer by 7 1/4 lengths. A 3-year-old gelding by Smoke Glacken, he broke alertly under Robby Albarado and zipped through six furlongs in the excellent time of 1:10.37 as the 9-5 favorite.

Smoke Mountain is now undefeated in three starts since being claimed by trainer Tom Amoss for $30,000 at Turfway Park in September. He came into Thursday's race off two consecutive allowance victories at Mountaineer Park, and Amoss was happy to see that his form translated to the Fair Grounds.

"I think with Smoke Mountain the jury was out," said Amoss. "He won two very good races at Mountaineer, but we didn't know if he had to have his track to run those races. We were optimistic but we didn't know if we'd get the same result we saw at Mountaineer."

Amoss is not certain about Smoke Mountain's next assignment.

"He came out of the race in good shape," said Amoss. "He's not a big horse so we'll give him some rest and we'll go from there. The next step would probably be stakes competition."

Albarado gaining momentum

Robby Albarado, who has won the jockey title at Fair Grounds seven times, completed a riding triple Thursday at the New Orleans oval to give him eight wins at the meet. Albarado won the fifth race aboard 7-1 shot Mt. Splendor with an aggressive pace-pressing ride, battling with early leader Regwell through the stretch to win by a head.

"I definitely had to find something extra in that last quarter," he said. "I was in front by a head or maybe half a head, so when it's that close you got to dig down for something else."

In the eighth race Albarado coasted by 5 1/2 lengths with the good-looking filly Ocean Current, who won like a 2-5 shot is supposed to. Albarado capped his triple in the feature aboard the sharp sprinter Smoke Mountain.

Through Thursday, apprentice James Talamo is far ahead in the jockey standings with 20 wins, but Albarado, who always arrives at Fair Grounds a couple of weeks into the meet after finishing the Churchill Downs fall meeting, isn't conceding anything yet.

"I've never been in front in December, ever," he said. "It's March when you get the trophy. I've lost a little time, but I'm patient."

Some workouts are lost in the fog

It was not that Fair Grounds horsemen suddenly decided to stop breezing their stock five furlongs this week - though a glance at the Fair Grounds work tabs might suggest as much. What happened was fog, heavy fog that blanketed the track and obscured the view of clockers trying to record works on Thursday and Friday mornings. The fog was so dense that clockers stationed at the half-mile pole stand could not even see horses breaking off for five- or six-furlong works, to say nothing of seven-furlong breezes that would have started around the clubhouse turn. The rest of the clocking crew situated in the Fair Grounds grandstand - including head clocker Michelle Salvino - had the same problem.

"Couldn't see anything," said longtime Fair Grounds clocker Billy Pettingill. "We started them all at the half-mile pole and ended them at the finish."

The fog cleared toward the end of training, allowing clockers to get a few three-furlong works: 19 of them were recorded Thursday, as was one six-furlong gate work. The gate crew, Pettingill said, was hesitant to break horses out of the starting gate during training hours, since the gate is located in a chute at the head of the track's homestretch, and there was no way of knowing what might have been coming from the other direction.

More dense fog was forecast through the weekend.

- additional reporting by Marcus Hersh