Temperence Hill, who earned more than $1 million last year through a combination of bad opposition and incredible good luck, won the $167,700 Suburban Handicap the hard, honest way today.

Seemingly out of contention with a quarter-mile to do, he charged down the middle of Belmont Park's sloppy racing strip and defeated the best horses in the East.

Temperence Hill scored by a head over the longshot Ring Of Light, with Highland Blade, Fappiano and Native Prospector all within a length of each other at the finish. Although his margin of victory was modest and his time relatively slow, his performance was an undeniably impressive one. It proved -- incontrovertibly -- that he is a legitimate high-class racehorse.

The colt came into this race with only one competitive advantage: the mud. He scored the first important victory in his life when he won the Belmont Stakes a year ago under similar conditions. But he was coming into the prestigious Suburban after making two unsuccessful round trips to the West Coast, and he was forced to spot his rivals from four to 18 pounds.

His most formidable rival appeared to be Fappiano, who had won the Metropolitian Handicap here in brilliant fashion, and for awhile the race seemed to be settidng up perfectly for the 2-to-1 favorite. Ring Of Light and Winter's Tale went out to battle for the early lead, while jockey Angel Cordero Jr. sat third in perfect striking position.

Fappiano advanced gradually and moved outside the leders, while Temperence Hill still seemed to be going nowhere. "At the half-mile pole," trainer Joe Cantey confessed, "I thought he'd finish last."

As the field turned into the stretch, Ring Of Light surprisingly spurted away from Fappiano, while Temperence Hill started to loop the field, with the 3-year-old Highland Blade just outside him.

"I didn't think we were going to get anything," said Temperence Hill's jockey Don MacBeth, who was substituting for the suspended Eddie Maple. "But he started to pick up horses and flew down the lane."

And just as he started to acclerate both Ring Of Light and Fappiano were finding the the Suburban's 1 1/4-mile distance was a bit beyond their capabilities. Temperence Hill put his nose in front of Ring Of Light in the final stride, covering the distance in 2:02 flat.

Moments later he found himself the object of two foul claims. Jacinto Vasquez said the winner had bumped Highland Blade on the turn; Cordero said that Fappiano had been bothered by him in the final yards.

After the stewards disallowed both objections, Temperence Hill paid $8.40, $5.80 and $3.40. Ring of Light returned $11.40 and $5.40, and Highland Blade paid $4.20 to show.

"This horse has changed so much!" Cantey exclaimed after the race. "He's such an aggressive horse this year." Cantey had thought Temperence Hill to be a bit lazy or erratic last season because of his in-and-out record, but some skeptics noted that his defeats happened to occur whenever he had met decent horses.

With horses like Fappiano, Highland Blade and Winter's Tale behind him today, no one will be saying things like that ever again.