06/13/2002 11:00PM

Extra! Real super horse revealed


NEW YORK - It's wonderful that 103,222 people were at Belmont Park last Saturday for the Belmont Stakes and that another seven million watched the race on television. It's a pity that only 8,517 were at Belmont the next day, joined by a television audience limited to simulcast and OTB customers, to see the most exciting racehorse in the game these days.

That would be Xtra Heat, the 4-year-old filly who is putting together a career that makes her the likeliest horse in training to end up in the Hall of Fame. Her consistency and durability make her a genuine throwback to the iron horses of the past, the kind that old-timers grouse just don't come around anymore.

She is a particularly welcome throwback at a time when horses at the highest levels of the sport are plagued by abbreviated campaigns and inconsistency. She is the only Eclipse Award winner of 2001 to shine in 2002. Her victory in Sunday's Vagrancy Handicap was her 21st in 27 career starts, a spectacular record that actually gets better the closer you look at it.

Each of those six defeats has a straightforward explanation: Three were against the best males in training; two were at seven furlongs, which is stretching things for her (although she has won at the distance five times); the other was her lone two-turn race, the 2000 Juvenile Fillies, her only off-the-board finish. At her forte, facing fellow fillies at up to 6 1/2 furlongs, she is a perfect 16 for 16.

Those 27 starts have come during just 24 months. From her winning debut June 30, 2000, to her Interborough Handicap victory New Year's Day this year, she ran 23 times in 18 months without a break of more than six weeks. A $5,000 yearling, Xtra Heat followed her debut, when she won for a $25,000 tag, with 26 consecutive stakes appearances, 13 of them graded. She has never been in an allowance race, and it's unlikely anyone will write a nonwinners-of-22 for her.

This season she must feel as if she were being trained by Michael Dickinson instead of John Salzman, making a relatively paltry five starts in the year's first six months. Of course the middle race (sandwiched between Interborough, Barbara Fritchie, Genuine Risk, and Vagrancy triumphs), involved a trip halfway around the world, where she ran a solid third to two males in the Dubai Golden Shaheen March 23.

On May 12, she returned to the races at Belmont for the Genuine Risk. Fifty days is a quick comeback for any horse returning from Dubai, and bigger, sturdier males have been knocked out for months by the trip. The public was a bit skeptical, letting her off at 4-5 in a spot where she truly figured to be 2-5. She broke to the lead as usual and held on by a length under top weight of 126 pounds. She ran a similar race last Sunday to win the 6 1/2-furlong Vagrancy under 127 at 3-5.

The Vagrancy was the final leg of a pick six featuring the largest one-day carryover ever in New York, when an unclaimed $685,751 from Belmont Day fueled a $1.6 million pool. The results leading up to the Vagrancy were as formful as Belmont Day's had been chaotic, and you have to think there were a lot of small bettors with tickets alive only to her among the 677 she turned into $2,351 winners. For those who would have gotten a much richer return had she lost, there might have been some consolation in getting beaten out of a bigger payout by the most prolific winner in the game capturing her 20th stakes race.

It may have been a blessing that last year's long-distance fillies did such a good job beating one another throughout the year because it created an opening for Xtra Heat to overcome the bias against sprinters and to win the 3-year-old filly title. Otherwise she might never have been rewarded with a championship. She resides in the sport's singularly unrecognized category: Sprinting fillies are the only division with neither their own Eclipse Award nor Breeders' Cup race.

The next time either of those groups is expanded, it would seem appropriate to acknowledge that most American races are sprints and half of them are for fillies. It's a little strange that Xtra Heat's next big award is less likely to be a Breeders' Cup victory or an Eclipse than a plaque in the Hall of Fame.