11/15/2001 1:00AM

Give this filly an Eclipse award!


WASHINGTON - No racehorse in America this year has displayed the qualities of a champion so much as Xtra Heat. She is consistent, tenacious, durable - and extraordinarily fast. Yet the Maryland-based filly is unlikely to receive official recognition as a champion.

She would boost her credentials if she wins the Frank De Francis Memorial Dash on Saturday at Laurel Park, but even a victory against her formidable male rivals would not guarantee her an Eclipse Award. Xtra Heat may fall through the cracks in the balloting system.

Nobody could have imagined that a filly with such humble origins would one day be a candidate for national recognition. Sold at auction for $5,000, she started her career running for a $25,000 price tag at Laurel. Her trainer, John Salzman, is a sharp operator but has no reputation for developing champions.

Yet over two seasons of competition, Xtra Heat has compiled a phenomenal record: 21 starts, 17 wins, 3 seconds. Because her forte is raw speed, her record in races of six furlongs or less is even more impressive: 13 starts, 12 wins, 1 second. But there's the rub: Horses whose specialty is running six furlongs don't get many opportunities for glory.

It was that one second-place finish that verified what a great sprinter Xtra Heat is, swaying many previous skeptics (including this one). In the early part of her career she beat undistinguished competition without having to run particularly fast. By the summer of her 3-year-old season she was earning some sensational speed figures. But she was scoring her victories against members of her own sex, and few handicappers considered her a serious contender in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park. Xtra Heat is a one-dimensional speed horse, and what chance would she have against Caller One, the 4-year-old gelding who was one of the quickest American racehorses in years? He had taken the early lead in every race of his life.

If the filly's chances looked bad on paper, they looked even worse at Belmont Park on Oct. 27, when the racetrack was evidently hindering horses on or near the rail. Xtra Heat had the misfortune of drawing post position No. 1 in a field of 14, and bettors accordingly shunned her, letting her start at 17-1.

She proceeded to deliver a stunning performance. From the rail she outran Caller One and all of the other speedsters in that exceptional field. She fought off a challenge by Caller One before Squirtle Squirt - who had been stalking the two leaders - rallied past her to win by a half-length. Rarely has a racehorse been so ennobled in defeat. Xtra Heat clearly deserves to be honored with a championship - but which one?

The Eclipse Award for leading sprinter typically goes to the winner of the Breeders' Cup Sprint. (This has happened in six of the last eight years.) Although Squirtle Squirt didn't have overwhelming credentials before his victory, he had finished first or second in all of his races. It probably wouldn't be fair to deny him the title and give it to a rival who scored all of her victories against filly competition.

Should Xtra Heat be named the champion 3-year-old filly? That would defy all precedent. Although there are no rules specifying qualifications for the Eclipse Awards, the titles for the outstanding horses in each category (3-year-old male and female, 4-year-old male and female) are always awarded to distance runners. No pure sprinter has ever been given one of those awards because sprinters have their own special category.

But this, in my view, is the year to make an exception. None of the contenders for the 3-year-old filly title has won more than two Grade 1 stakes. Flute won the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama Stakes but fizzled in the fall. Exogenous won two stakes at Belmont during a four-week period in the fall - but nothing else of consequence. Unbridled Elaine's victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff was her only major triumph. In contrast to the spotty records of her contemporaries, Xtra Heat has a record of excellence stretching from January to the present.

She deserves the 3-year-old filly championship regardless of what happens Saturday. And if she should win the De Francis Dash against superb males such as Kona Gold and the fleet Caller One, Eclipse Award voters should consider giving her a daily double: champion 3-year-old filly and champion sprinter, too.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post