John Salzman, trainer of Xtra Heat, calls home every day and tells his son, Tim, the same thing: "Everything's good."
Salzman and Xtra Heat have been in Dubai for two weeks, preparing for the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen on Saturday at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. Since Salzman and his star mare arrived in the United Arab Emirates, war began in Iraq, about 800 miles away.
Tim Salzman, assistant trainer, says his father reports that Dubai remains safe.
"He says everything's the same as last year when he was there," Tim says. "He pretty much only goes back and forth between the track and the hotel, anyway. He's keeping a low profile as it is. He doesn't feel he's at any risk."
John Salzman traveled to Dubai last year with Xtra Heat when she finished third in the Golden Shaheen. She has a good chance of winning this year.
The competition isn't as strong as it was last year. Xtra Heat's main threat appears to be Scott Lake-trained My Cousin Matt, who won the General George Handicap on Feb. 20 at Laurel Park.
That was the same day Xtra Heat captured the Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel. Who could have imagined that those two 7-furlong Maryland stakes would produce the leading contenders in the world's richest sprint race?
My Cousin Matt completed his 7 furlongs 2.64 seconds faster than Xtra Heat completed hers. But My Cousin Matt carried 113 pounds, and Xtra Heat carried 125. In Dubai, My Cousin Matt will tote 126 and Xtra Heat 123.
"That's a pretty big swing," Tim Salzman says.
Also, Xtra Heat has competed on Nad Al Sheba's 6-furlong straightaway. My Cousin Matt will race on a straight course for the first time.
Finally, Xtra Heat will regain the services of veteran jockey Rick Wilson, who missed last year's Dubai race because of an injury. Xtra Heat never changed leads in that race. Wilson says he'll have no problem getting her to change this time.
He's planning to fly tomorrow to Dubai.
"This is her Triple Crown ... so I'm grateful just to be able to ride her," Wilson says. "It is a big advantage for her to have already had a race over the track."
In the Barbara Fritchie, Xtra Heat became the all-time leading female in stakes wins with 25. If she wins the Golden Shaheen and its $1.2 million top prize, she will become the leading female earner of all time with $3,589,635, surpassing Spain's $3,540,542.
John Salzman and two partners bought her for $5,000 as a 2-year-old. She's now 5. They sold her last fall to the Utah-based Classic Star Stable for $1.5 million.
"That would be great if I was aboard when she accomplished that," Wilson says. "For a $5,000 buy to become the all-time winningest female is a spectacular story."
Xtra Heat's race is one of seven that make up the Dubai World Cup program, the richest card in racing history. Its purses total $15.25 million.
Laurel Park and Pimlico will open at 9:30 a.m. Saturday with free admission for fan apprecition day. They will offer betting on four of the races: the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic at 10 a.m.; the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen at 11:10 a.m.; the $2 million Dubai Duty Free at 11:50 a.m., and the $6 million Dubai World Cup at 12:40 p.m.
Laurel's races will begin at 12:50 p.m.
Next stop, Illinois Derby
After scratching Cherokee's Boy last weekend from the Gotham Stakes, trainer Gary Capuano plans to run the Maryland colt in the $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 5 at Hawthorne Race Course.
Capuano says he scratched Cherokee's Boy after he drew the outside 11 post, virtually eliminating any chance of his winning the 1-mile, 70-yard race around two turns at Aqueduct.
The Illinois Derby is the race last year that catapulted War Emblem into the Kentucky Derby. Capuano says that's probably not going to happen with Cherokee's Boy.
"I'm not really looking at the Derby with him," Capuano says. "He'd have to do something really exceptional in the Illinois Derby for me even to think about that."
Capuano is, however, looking at the Preakness for Cherokee's Boy.
Attracting business for sire
When Buddy Gil won the San Felipe Stakes last Sunday at Santa Anita Park, he not only vaulted into the Kentucky Derby picture but also focused attention on his sire, Maryland stallion Eastern Echo.
This is Eastern Echo's second season at stud at Shamrock Farms in Woodbine. He relocated to Maryland last year from Lane's End Farm in Kentucky. Marylander Don Litz and local investors, operating as Maryland Stallion Station, own Eastern Echo with Lane's End.
"The first day after Buddy Gil won the San Felipe we signed 15 additional contracts [for breeding]," Litz says. "I'm not saying this is going to be like Our Emblem, but if Buddy Gil wins the Santa Anita Derby, it's going to be wild."
While standing last year at Murmur Farm in Maryland, Our Emblem gained prominence when his son, War Emblem, won the Illinois Derby as an unknown (same as Buddy Gil at this stage) and then captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Around the tracks
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has announced its nominees for induction this year. Trainer: Sonny Hine, Mel Stute, John Veitch. Jockey: Eddie Maple, Randy Romero, Mike Smith. Female horse: Dance Smartly, Flawlessly, Sky Beauty. Male horse: Ancient Title, Manila, Precisionist.
HBO and actor Robert Wuhl are planning to make a movie about last year's attempted Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 betting coup.
Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, is nearing her 2003 debut in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 5 at Oaklawn Park.