`Heat' a centerpiece in desert

Horse racing: The Maryland filly with blazing speed will be one of the main attractions in the gold-plated Dubai World Cup tomorrow.

Horse Racing

March 22, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The remarkable story of Xtra Heat will continue tomorrow in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai, where the $5,000 Maryland filly will run for $1.2 million in the richest sprint race in the world.

Not only will Xtra Heat compete, but she'll likely be favored in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen ($1.2 million to the winner).

The six-furlong dash is part of the seven-race, $15.25 million Dubai World Cup program that in seven years has become, along with the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in this country, one of racing's preeminent events.

The fact that Xtra Heat is one of the World Cup's showcase horses is topped only in incredibility by the fact that she has become possibly the most popular racehorse in the United States.

Stabled at Laurel Park and owned by a trio of Marylanders, Xtra Heat has won 19 of 24 races, earned $1.4 million and captured the 2001 Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding 3-year-old filly.

"There's just nothing more to say," said Kenneth Taylor, one of her owners. "This is something you just wouldn't believe. It's impossible to believe what's happened."

Taylor, owner of a brokerage firm at Cross Keys; Harry Deitchman, retired head of payroll for the City of Baltimore, and John Salzman, longtime Maryland horseman, bought Xtra Heat for $5,000 at a Timonium auction when she was 2.

They were looking for a fast, precocious horse that they could nurture for a few races and then sell at a profit. A few buyers expressed interest, but no deals were consummated. The trio was forced to hold onto Xtra Heat, and she led them on a journey as fantastic as a magic-carpet ride through the desert.

The small, laid-back filly with the blazing speed will attempt to light up the desert racetrack Nad Al Sheba in the port city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The wealthy sheiks of this oil-rich kingdom, long immersed in a love affair with horses, built this exquisite racing center in the late 1980s as an attraction to tourists, as well as the fastest horses in the world.

The centerpiece of tomorrow's one-day extravaganza is the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race. The Maryland-bred Cigar, now retired and living at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, won the inaugural Dubai World Cup in 1996, becoming the first unofficial Horse of the World.

Horses from the United States - Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve last year - captured two of the five subsequent runnings of the race. This year, for the first time, no American-owned horse will compete in the Dubai World Cup.

Western Pride, runner-up in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, one of California's premier races, would have been the lone American-owned entry. But just this week his California owners sold the 4-year-old colt to a Saudi Arabian prince for an undisclosed price.

Even with American owners, Western Pride would have detracted little from Xtra Heat. In this peculiar period in U.S. racing, with its dearth of popular horses, Xtra Heat has claimed the American heart.

Her rags-to-riches story and her catch-me-if-you-can style appeal to the American psyche. On top of that, she's a female who has invaded a male's world.

She gained heartfelt respect last fall with a gutsy effort in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park in New York. As the lone female in a field of 14, she led until the final strides and finished second by a half-length.

In the Dubai Golden Shaheen, she is one of four females in the field of 13, but the one with the best chance of winning. Her main opposition will be Caller One, a 5-year-old gelding from California with whom she has locked horns twice before.

Caller One finished third, a neck behind Xtra Heat, in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last November at Laurel Park, Caller One challenged Xtra Heat so ferociously in the early going that neither horse had the strength to hold on at the finish.

Xtra Heat finished third and Caller One faded to sixth. Afterward, Salzman, Xtra Heat's trainer and part owner, berated Caller One's jockey and trainer for their suicidal tactics that cost both horses any chance of winning.

The Dubai race at six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile) will be an even more intense showdown because it is run on a straightaway, not around a turn as in this country. Salzman, who believes he has the faster horse, is not worried.

"He's going to have to worry about me," Salzman said of the 5-year-old Caller One. "I'm not losing any sleep over him."

Maryland racetracks and off-track-betting centers will open early tomorrow to show five of the Dubai races on TV. Xtra Heat's is scheduled for 11:10 a.m. (8:10 p.m. in Dubai.). Maryland jockey Harry Vega will ride the filly.

"She's right as rain," said Taylor, who flew to Dubai on Monday to join Salzman and Xtra Heat, who have been there for one month. "She may not win, but they're going to have to run like the devil to beat her."

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