10/20/2002 11:00PM

The lady with millions of admirers

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The most popular horse in Saturday's 19th running of the Breeders' Cup is a rather plain looking 4-year-old bay filly purchased for $5,000 at a 2-year-old sale in Timonium, Md. In 31 starts for her three owners, Xtra Heat has won 24 races, earning $2,223,305 and the admiration of the racing community.

She will be challenging for the Breeders' Cup Sprint this weekend, a race that looks every bit as competitive as last year's renewal, in which she was second by half a length to the eventual divisional champion, Squirtle Squirt. She has never been better and comes here off a victory over colts at Keeneland, but she has her work cut out for her.

Her Sprint opponents include such good ones as Orientate, who has won four consecutive stakes; Bonapaw, who has won three stakes in his last three starts; Disturbingthepeace, who also has a string of three stakes victories; Swept Overboard, winner of the Met Mile at Belmont Park; and Kona Gold, the Sprint winner two years ago.

Because there is so little room for error, the Sprint is one of the most difficult races to win. Horses going a distance have opportunities to overcome some poor racing luck, but the Sprint is history in quick time and Xtra Heat is a prominent target. But win or lose, she always puts on a great show.

The only race in which she failed to finish in the money was at 1 1/16 miles, a distance that is simply beyond her capacity

"She's been a pleasure from the beginning," said John Salzman, the veteran Maryland horseman who trains Xtra Heat and owns her in partnership with two friends, Ken Taylor, owner of a brokerage firm, and Harry Deitchman, a retired official for the city of Baltimore. "I ran her for the first time in a $25,000 maiden race at Laurel and bet $600 on her. She was bothered leaving the gate and I thought she was beaten, but turning for home she circled the field and got up to win. I ran her back in a small stakes and she won that too, by almost five lengths. She was on her way."

Last year, at 3, she won 9 of 13 starts and $1 million.

"She was beaten half a length by Squirtle Squirt in the Breeders' Cup Sprint," Salzman noted "but it was her best race. She fought hard all the way. Another outstanding performance was the Barbara Fritchie at Laurel last winter. She won under 128 pounds and was conceding 14 pounds to the runner-up, stakes-winning Prized Stamp."

Salzman, 57, took out his trainer's license in 1969. A brother-in-law, Robert "Tex" Anderson, had a stable at the Maryland half-mile tracks, including Hagerstown, Marlboro, and Timonium, and Salzman assisted. He bought a horse named Gregorian for $600 from an ad in the Baltimore Sun and won several races with him.

Another useful purchase was Maggie Wag, who cost $700 and won eight races. Salzman had a lot of useful horses over the years until Xtra Heat came along.

"She keeps doing things that amaze," he said. "We bought a new feed cup and I thought it was the same two-quart capacity as the old cup. I told the groom to give her two cups of oats, and when she left a little of her dinner recently, following her victory over the colts in Kentucky, I thought the race might have taken something out of her. Then I discovered the feed cup had a five-quart capacity, not two. She was getting 20 quarts of oats, and she ate most of it. She's back to the old diet now but we've seen again that she takes everything in stride."

Salzman and his two partners are planning to put Xtra Heat up for sale Nov. 3 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky pavilion. They feel she is worth a considerable sum and will sell her if the price meets their expectations. They won't give her away and will continue to race her if they don't get their price. In many respects that would be a happy resolution to the situation.