If price is right, `Heat' is history

Horse racing: The amazing, rags-to-riches story of the sprinter and her Maryland owners may end with the Breeders' Cup on Saturday.

Horse Racing

October 23, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - After two years, 31 races, an Eclipse Award and $2.2 million in earnings, the magical tale of Xtra Heat might be ending for her Maryland owners.

On Saturday, the Laurel-based Xtra Heat will race in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Arlington Park, about 25 miles northwest of Chicago. It could be her last race for owners John Salzman, Harry Deitchman and Ken Taylor, who bought her for $5,000 in 2000 looking for a fast, cheap horse they could turn around quickly for a profit. They may be about to cash in.

On Nov. 3, eight days after the Breeders' Cup, Xtra Heat will be offered at auction in Lexington, Ky. If a bidder tops the $2.2 million minimum her owners have set for her, the 4-year-old filly whose achievements have overwhelmed expectations will ride home with new owners.

Fans around the country adore her. Joe Hirsch, distinguished columnist for The Daily Racing Form, wrote in today's edition that Xtra Heat is the most popular horse in this year's Breeders' Cup.

You won't hear such sentimental mush from her owners.

"I love her to death, and she's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," said Taylor, who owns a brokerage firm at Cross Keys. "But I won't die if I sell her. I'm not going to be upset. I'm not going to cry. That's just the way it is.

"This is a tough business. When you can make a little money, you've got to do it. To me, you'd have to be crazy not to sell her when she's on top."

If no one meets their price at the auction, Xtra Heat will remain the property of her Maryland owners, return to her Laurel stall under Salzman's care and continue racing.

Salzman, whose 40-year career has been defined by Xtra Heat, says he would love to continue training her. But the undersized filly with the laid-back demeanor has raced every month but two since Salzman and his partners bought her in May 2000.

"How tight do you pull the rubber band before it breaks?" Salzman said.

Already, Xtra Heat is the richest female sprinter in history, winning 24 of 31 races for earnings of $2,223,305. She could earn an additional $520,000 by winning the $1 million Sprint.

Last year, she finished a gallant second in the Sprint, leading until the final strides as the only female in the field of 14. Some called it the greatest assemblage of sprinters in history.

Squirtle Squirt passed Xtra Heat in the shadow of the wire, winning by a half-length and earning the Eclipse Award as top sprinter. Xtra Heat was voted the Eclipse as outstanding 3-year-old filly, becoming the first sprinter to win that award.

The field for this year's Sprint, a mad dash of six furlongs, includes likely favorite Orientate, who has won four straight for his Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas; Disturbingthepeace, who has won six straight in California, but not at the highest levels; 6-year-old mare Kalookan Queen, who defeated males in a Grade I sprint Oct. 5 at Santa Anita Park, and 8-year-old Kona Gold, who will make his fifth straight start in the Breeders' Cup, a record. Kona Gold won the Sprint in 2000, but was seventh last year.

Several horses in the race have the speed to challenge Xtra Heat early. If she were to run her best race and lose, those early challenges combined with a relentless assault around the turn and down the stretch would probably be what would beat her.

Salzman said he believes no other horse in the race is faster than Xtra Heat. Let her take them on one-by-one in match races, he said, and she wins every time.

"But with a 14-horse field," Salzman said, "anything can happen."

Salzman and Xtra Heat have been receiving extraordinary attention at Arlington Park. Reporters and crews from numerous newspapers and television networks surround them as Salzman grazes Xtra Heat outside Barn 18.

Xtra Heat remains as calm as an old beagle in the sun. She lifts her head if she thinks you have carrots, but otherwise she displays the same calm bearing that benefits her performances. When Salzman walks her under the shedrow, she hangs her head as if she were sick.

"You know she's feeling awfully good," he said. "She just doesn't show it. She saves every ounce of energy for when she races. She puts it all out at the right time. She's unreal."

Although Salzman speaks of Xtra Heat in terms of money earned, once calling her a "cash register," he possesses a sentimental side that he hides from the public, said his wife, Nancy.

"He likes to play the tough guy," she said. "But it's going to break his heart to see her go."

Xtra Heat has allowed her owners to pay off debts, invest for retirement, enrich children and grandchildren and contribute freely to charity and church. She has sent them to foreign places and introduced them to people unimagined.

Deitchman, the oldest owner at 77, invested in Xtra Heat at the behest of Taylor, his longtime friend. Retired after 30 years as head of payroll for Baltimore, Deitchman became part owner of Xtra Heat in only his second year in the horse business.

He said selling her would be a mixed blessing, but probably the smart thing to do. He would miss her, he said, and so would his wife, three children and four grandchildren.

Deitchman struggled trying to find words to describe the past two years. Finally, he says: "It's been one heck of a ride."

Breeders' Cup

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When:Saturday

Where:Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.

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

Feature race:$4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (post time, 5:35 p.m.)

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