`Xtra' special filly tackles Breeders' boys

First X-ray set tone for long-shot success

October 23, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - If they had X-rayed her when they bought her, they might not have kept her. Three times they've come close to selling her.

The owners just can't get rid of Xtra Heat.

The filly, for her part, has responded with more heart and power than she has any right to possess. As perhaps only an overachieving racehorse can do, Xtra Heat has taken her owners on the ride of their lives.

The filly they bought for $5,000 a year and a half ago has earned more than $1 million. In four days she will take the biggest leap of her career and race against males in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park.

"Never in a million years did we expect her to do what she's been doing," Harry Deitchman says. "It's been like winning the lottery."

Deitchman, retired head of payroll for the city of Baltimore, is one of Xtra Heat's owners, along with Kenneth Taylor, owner of a brokerage firm at Cross Keys, and John Salzman, equine mastermind and trainer of Xtra Heat. Salzman, 56, has worked with horses since he was 12. He trains at Laurel Park.

Small even for a filly, the 3-year-old has compiled a record bordering on invincible. She has won 17 of 20 races. She has finished second twice. The only time she didn't finish first or second was last year in the Breeders' Cup.

In the $1 million Juvenile Fillies, she got bumped at the break and finished 10th in the field of 12. She needed everything to go perfectly just to have a chance at a distance probably beyond her scope, 1 1/16 miles.

Xtra Heat is a sprinter. She has won at distances from five furlongs to seven furlongs. But her optimum distance is six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile), the distance of the Breeders' Cup Sprint. At six furlongs, Xtra Heat is 10-for-10.

However, in the Sprint the diminutive filly will line up against 13 colts and geldings, including last year's winner, Kona Gold. She will probably face pressure throughout.

But don't count her out. From the beginning, Xtra Heat has accomplished the unimaginable.

Salzman, who bought his first horse when he was 17 (and made money), picked out Xtra Heat in May last year at a sale of 2-year-olds at Timonium. It was the third auction for the modestly bred filly that nobody wanted. Salzman and his partners bought her for $5,000.

"She was a good-looking filly that we got cheap," Salzman says. "We were just buying horses. We got lucky."

Salzman has made a good living by "getting lucky." Taylor, his partner, says that Salzman is "the best in the business" at buying young horses, developing them and then selling them for a profit.

If the story of Xtra Heat had followed the usual script, readers of a newspaper in another city would be reading about the rags-to-riches filly. Salzman and his partners would have sold Xtra Heat, stuffed some of the profit into their pockets and churned the rest back into other young horses.

But fate intervened - here, perhaps, Salzman's "luck" played a role - and they couldn't complete a sale. Each time the buyer pulled out - for $300,000, for $900,000 and for $1.2 million.

They attempted to sell Xtra Heat earlier this year in an online auction, but bidding fell short of her $1.4 million reserve. Her current price tag? $2 million.

The initial offer of $300,000 - 60 times her purchase price - came after her second race, an easy victory in a minor stakes at Laurel.

"Oh yeah," Taylor says, "for $300,000 she was gone, no doubt about it."

Hindering a sale were two dime-size spots on X-rays, spots in bones high in both hind legs that had not fully filled in. That was enough to scare off potential buyers. But when Salzman and his partners bought her at Timonium, they had no idea.

They bought three horses that day. Before vanning them home, Salzman summoned his veterinarian to take X-rays of each horse. If an X-ray had turned up a problem, he could have refused the horse.

The vet X-rayed the first two horses, but when he prepared to X-ray Xtra Heat, the van driver announced that he was ready to go. Salzman made a snap decision. Instead of hiring a second van to transport Xtra Heat, he sent the filly on board without X-rays.

"We got her for $5,000," Salzman says. "I figured let's take a chance."

That chance with seemingly minimal risk launched the journey that culminates Saturday on Long Island in New York.

"If she'd gotten X-rayed, we might not have kept her," Taylor says. "That would have been up to John. If we'd have said goodbye then, there'd be nothing to talk about."

As it is, there's a lot to talk about as Xtra Heat tries to become the fourth filly to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint. This is the 18th running of the prestigious series.

For Salzman, a horseman from the old school, running fillies against colts runs against the grain. But Xtra Heat has run herself into this race by first dominating fillies her own age and then devouring older fillies and mares.

She's run out of challenges.

If she outruns the males, her owners might consider racing her next March in the $2 million Golden Shaheen, an international sprint on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup in the Middle East.

That's a long way from Salzman's barn in Maryland. But Xtra Heat has already taken her owners farther than they could have hoped. Next, the gallant little filly just might take them around the world.

Facts, figures

What: Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When: Saturday

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

Races: Eight stakes worth $13 million

Feature: $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic

TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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