Xtra Heat classy on, off track

Amid bucking, whining, Eclipse-winning filly has quiet, proud presence

Horse Racing

August 10, 2002|By Alex Koustenis | Alex Koustenis,SUN STAFF

It was 6 a.m. and the sun had yet to peek over the horizon at Laurel Park, but local sensation Xtra Heat had already begun her day.

Some horses kicked the doors of their stalls; others bucked in outdoor pens. Xtra Heat waited quietly in her stall for her turn to be saddled and bridled. There were no cameras, fans or glitz.

It was an ordinary day for the extraordinary, 4-year old filly.

A little after 6, Xtra Heat's groom, Javier Cruz, placed a bright orange and red saddle on her back. Matching orange coverings protected her lower legs from injury.

Soon after, trainer and part owner John Salzman approached. Cruz handed off the reins so Salzman could warm her up by walking her around.

Other horses stared as Xtra Heat began her graceful walk over the worn dirt surface in the stable. But the humble filly hung her head, almost as if she were shy.

"She's got a very good personality," Salzman said. "She's quiet like that all the time. She walks with her head down. But when she gets close to a race, she gets very irritable."

Next, it was exercise rider Anthony Aguirre's turn to stretch Xtra Heat's legs on the track. Salzman drove his pickup truck to the track to get a good view. As the sun finally rose, the trainer took out his binoculars to watch her workout.

Relishing the cool weather, Xtra Heat sped down the track, galloping with her head down.

"She did really good today," Aguirre said.

Unlike distance horses, sprinters such as Xtra Heat are not worked as hard. Instead of two miles, they run one.

Almost as soon as she started, her workout was over. Salzman returned to the paddock to help attend to his 28 other horses.

"With this horse, everything you do is fast," Salzman said. "We pretty much train the horses all the same way, but we do pay a little more attention to her."

After being purchased for $5,000 at an auction in Timonium two years ago. Xtra Heat stunned owners Kenneth Taylor, Harry Deitchman and Salzman by winning race after race.

Would-be buyers have offered them as much as $1.2 million. In February, she became the first sprinter to be named champion 3-year-old filly at the Eclipse Awards. In March, she finished third in the world's richest sprint race in Dubai.

Salzman's youngest son, Tim, who has taken an active role in the training and care of the horses, has watched Xtra Heat prosper. "It's something you work for all your life," Tim Salzman said. "But she does it all on her own. She's all heart and determination. I think she knows when she loses. You can see how aggravated she gets."

She has won 21 of the 28 races she has run. Today, she will try to win the $125,000 Maryland Straight Deal Breeders' Cup Stakes for the second year in a row.

"She always tries as hard as she can," John Salzman said. "I always expect her to win, though."

After her training session, Xtra Heat was given a bath by Cruz, who has worked with her for about a year. She then returned to her stall and plopped down in the hay. She seemed oblivious to the other horses whinnying and acting up.

With no need for a clock, the filly poked her head out of the stall at 9:45, aware that it was almost feeding time.

While Tim Salzman began to fill buckets with a feed that is high in fiber and fat, Xtra Heat craned her neck in a futile attempt to reach her bucket. After five minutes of trying, she began to gnaw at the wood in the doorway of her stall. In response, Salzman sneaked her a handful of food.

After the morning feeding, a period of down time stretched until afternoon, when the horses were fed and walked once more.

The only thing remotely glamorous for the champion sprinter was the blacksmith's arrival to take his monthly shoe order.

"Last month, her shoes sold on eBay or something for $700," John Salzman said.

After November, he may not be the one ordering horseshoes. Her owners have considered retiring Xtra Heat and selling her as a broodmare at auction in Kentucky.

"It will be hard giving her up," Salzman said. "But at the same token, she's going to get a good home. We can't afford to breed her, but the best we can do is give her to someone who can."

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