Back in control, Wilson, Xtra Heat win stakes easily

Jockey, 5-year-old mare regain their form to grab 2 3/4 -length Laurel victory

Horse Racing

January 19, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

On the coldest day of this new year, the What A Summer Stakes yesterday at Laurel Park featured a sizzling performance by Xtra Heat, a horse for all seasons.

Embarking upon her 2003 campaign, the 5-year-old Xtra Heat led every step in winning the six-furlong stakes named in honor of What A Summer, the Maryland-bred mare who won the Eclipse award in 1977 as outstanding sprinter. Xtra Heat's victory at 1-5 odds broke a rare two-race losing string and indicated to her new owners that their plan for the Laurel-based mare remains on course.

"It was an easy race for her and tells us she's OK," said Jon Freston, racing manager for ClassicStar, the Utah-based racing and breeding operation that bought Xtra Heat from her Maryland owners last fall for $1.5 million.

ClassicStar's plan calls for Xtra Heat to race in the $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap on Feb. 15 at Laurel and then the $2 million Golden Shaheen on March 29 in Dubai in the Middle East. After that, ClassicStar could retire Xtra Heat and breed her or continue racing her through 2003.

"We bought her as a broodmare," Freston said. "Anything she does on the racetrack is fun for us and a bonus."

Xtra Heat seems to be fun for everybody. A winner of 25 races in 34 starts, she attracts extra attention whenever she runs - from fans and bettors.

Yesterday, bettors wagered an astonishing $485,234 on her to show, hoping to make 10 cents on every $2 bet. The show pool was $502,862, forcing the track to pay more in show payoffs than it took in. An official in Laurel's mutuels department said a typical Saturday afternoon stakes race - one without Xtra Heat - would probably generate $12,000 to $15,000 in show bets.

John Salzman, Xtra Heat's trainer, and Rick Wilson, her jockey, were delighted with her performance. Salzman picked out Xtra Heat in 2000 at a sale of 2-year-olds and, with two local partners, bought her for $5,000. She earned $2.2 million for them and also won the 2001 Eclipse award as top 3-year-old filly.

Wilson was her regular rider until October 2001 when he broke his leg in a spill at Pimlico Race Course. He missed one year of riding but missed Xtra Heat most of all.

"How many horses like her come along?" Wilson said in the winner's circle. "Not many."

In Wilson's first race back with Xtra Heat, a stakes Dec. 14 at Aqueduct, Xtra Heat broke sluggishly and finished second. Wilson wanted to make sure that didn't happen again. He urged her out of the gate yesterday, and she zipped ahead of her five overmatched challengers.

She opened a 2 1/2 -length lead until the stretch, when Gazillion, the 4-1 second choice, challenged on the outside. That's what Wilson - and Xtra Heat - were waiting for. Xtra Heat spurted away and won by 2 3/4 lengths, completing the six furlongs in 1 minute, 9.43 seconds.

"I was hoping somebody would come up to her," Wilson said. "I wanted to see what she'd do. She just re-broke."

Xtra Heat passed all the tests. She broke sharply. She withstood a challenge. And she convinced Wilson that in the twilight of her career she still has more to give.

"She wasn't at full steam today," Wilson said. "I had a lot of horse left."

NOTE: Soto, one of Maryland's top hopes on the Triple Crown trail, will miss the spring races because of a sore shin, said Joan Wakefield, partner of Michael Dickinson, who trains the undefeated 3-year-old at his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County. Wakefield said Soto would be given time off in hopes of a summer return to racing.

"Obviously, we think he's a good horse," Wakefield said. "We don't want to hurt him in any way."

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