Scheinman: Remembering Hall Of Famer Xtra Heat, Horse Of A Lifetime – Horse Racing News

Xtra Heat was one of the most fun stories of my racing writing career. “Big, old, dumb hillbilly” trainer John Salzman, African American businessman owner Kenny Taylor and partner Harry Deitchman – she was the horse of their lifetimes and one of the greatest sprinters who ever lived. None of them would ever admit they fell in love with her, and they readily sold her when it came time, when they saw fit. Sentimentality did not fit their profiles.

All three men were into fast and cheap horses, and the one that made them more than $2 million didn’t turn their minds on how they did business.

They got her for a nickel ($5,000) after a vet told her owner she’d probably never make it to the races, the lesions in her stifles were so bad. She looked runty and was named cheap, after a gas company – not exactly Princequillo, Round Table or Secretariat – but it proved apt. Xtra Heat ran like she was lit by rocket fuel.

Bargain-hunter Taylor dropped that $5,000 on her at a 2-year-old sale in Timonium, Md., and, holy mother of God, she beat pretty much every top sprinter in the country from there on out.

At the start, only the locals knew how good she was. She won her first five races at the lesser precincts – Laurel, Philly and Delaware – like a laser beam, and when she got to the big stage, Belmont Park, for a Grade 2 baby race called the Astarita, the know-it-alls in New York let her go at nearly 8-1 and she beat Gold Mover, who went on to win over $1.5 million.

Next, the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and a route of ground were asking too much for her, and she finished 10th, but that was a mere aberration; they had put her in the wrong game. Once Salzman got that definitive proof she was “just” a sprinter, he never stretched her beyond her limits again. How the hell Cat Chat beat her by a nose at 3 in Belmont’s G2 Nassau County Stakes is beyond me, but losing to Victory Ride in Saratoga’s G1 Test (at seven furlongs) was legit. Victory Ride was excellent, but even she needed that extra furlong. At six panels, against Xtra Heat, everyone else ate her dust.

Xtra Heat won 26 of her 35 starts, 25 of them stakes races. That’s flat-out obscene, so many stakes races, and a modern record for distaff runners. She was named Eclipse Award-winning champion 3-year-old filly of 2001, and taking a cursory glance back through history, she may have been the only sprinter ever to do that. Definitely the only one going back to 1971. The $5,000 bargain earned nearly $2.4 million on the track.

Xtra Heat only won one Grade 1 race, the highest class, and when she became eligible for the Hall of Fame, there was a little too much chatter for my taste about her having mostly built her gaudy record in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, not New York, Kentucky and California. I vote and I would vote for her until I croaked, but turns out I didn’t have to, thankfully. She was one of my three objectives when I was proudly brought into the Hall of Fame voting circle: Xtra Heat, King Leatherbury (who turns 90 on March 26) and Safely Kept. All three are in.

The rider Xtra Heat was most identified with, Rick Wilson, lost the mount on her when he was severely injured in a terrible turf race accident in 2001 at Pimlico. He broke a leg and a bunch of ribs, and it took him 54 weeks to get back. At his lengthy peak, he was one of the bedrock riders of the Mid-Atlantic ovals, good on all surfaces and at all distances, and ranked among the all-time leaders in some categories despite never having the big horses of the more famous jocks.

Xtra Heat was his big horse, and he lost her.

Wilson was replaced by another journeyman, Harry Vega, and, for one race, in the Breeders’ Cup, Jorge Chavez. Even Chavez was second tier in New York. Salzman never got jumpy and went after some big hot shot to look like he knew what he was doing. He stuck with the riders he trusted.

I have vivid memories of both Wilson and Vega openly weeping as they guided Xtra Heat into the winner’s circle following victories at Laurel and Pimlico. You ride thousands of races and sweat pounds off until you can barely stand up, skip foods you love, and work seven days a week, early morning into the setting sun. You fall off and get back on, and fall off and get back on again, and you do it far, far from the bright lights mostly because you love it down in your core, and then you climb atop that piston hurricane?

You’re damn right they wept.

In May 2004, 15 months after Xtra Heat had been retired, Wilson had been back riding, and I was there at Pimlico the day he fell off one coming out of the gate and got kicked straight in the face by his own horse’s left hind hoof as he attempted to roll out of harm’s way.

I stood up there in the press box looking down – could barely move – with a cup of clam chowder in my hands, watching him lay motionless, face down, as blood pooled around his head.

I snapped awake, in horror, and had to get to work.

Wilson, such a good guy, his head forever ringing, never rode again.

All of this floods back after learning this wonderful, fast and fierce little animal Xtra Heat has died.

If you ever saw the remake of the movie “True Grit” with Jeff Bridges, well, Xtra Heat is kind of like Little Blackie in my mind. She’d run like the wind for you as far as she could, carrying whoever is necessarily strapped to her back. Both put a lump in your throat, and for cynical racetrackers, that’s saying something.

Nearing the end, in a stakes race called the Endine in September 2002 at Delaware Park, Xtra Heat rang the bell again, and Salzman, who when riding high couldn’t hide his Cheshire cat grin, turned to me and beamed, “She’s just like a cash register.”

Being businessmen, he and Taylor and Deitchman sold Xtra Heat in a private deal after she finished sixth a month later in the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington Park, which is now gone to the wrecker and the Chicago Bears for a new stadium.

New owners Classic Star Stable campaigned her three more times under Salzman before sending her off to breed, and Xtra Heat went out of top with back-to-back stakes wins, the finale at home, in the G2 Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel.

Who was back aboard the last three? Rick Wilson.

Toward the end of her run, because it was part of my job, I kept pestering Salzman and Taylor about whether they’d sell her. I was going to make sure it didn’t happen without me writing it first.

As I put it in one piece, they wanted to “get out while the getting is good.”

First and foremost, Salzman was practical, and a damn smart hillbilly, but through his rascally veneer, I could see – even if I was projecting a little – he was amazed to be tied to this almost mystical animal.

“How long. do you think she can last?” he wondered aloud to me one day.

Turns out she made it to 24, John.

RIP, Xtra Heat.

John Scheinman is a two-time Eclipse Award-winning writer and former Turf writer for the Washington Post