02/19/2002 12:00AM

Simply, Xtraordinary

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Xtra Heat, the fleet filly with a big heart and small price tag, scored a popular, although unconventional victory by being named the champion 3-year-old filly of 2001.

In handily beating out multiple Grade 1 winners Exogenous and Flute, Xtra Heat, a $5,000 2-year-old-in-training purchase, became the first filly that ran exclusively in sprint races to win this Eclipse Award.

Xtra Heat, who won nine stakes including the Grade 1 Prioress, carried all three voting blocks - Daily Racing Form, National Turf Writers Association, and National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Despite her impressive victory total, it may have been Xtra Heat's gutsy second-place finish against the boys in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that carried her to the award. Xtra Heat was also an Eclipse finalist in the sprint division, finishing second in the voting behind Squirtle Squirt.

"I thought she had a better shot with the 3-year-old filly," said trainer John Salzman, who is also Xtra Heat's part-owner along with Kenneth Taylor and Harry Deitchman. "Naturally, I was hoping for both of them. We raced a lot of times, the other horses hadn't raced that much and I think that was a big factor."

Xtra Heat ran 13 times, posting a 9-3-1 record. She began her campaign on Jan. 7 at Aqueduct, winning the Ruthless Stakes over the inner track. From there she raced at least once a month through November, competing at eight different tracks. She would have run in December, but a cough kept her out of the Garland of Roses.

"She gets bored if you don't run her," said Salzman, who noted that Xtra Heat had six weeks off before winning Saturday's Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park. "That was a long time. You'd see her in the stall with her head dropped, you'd feel sorry for her. She doesn't like a lot of time off."

Xtra Heat's championship qualities were her speed and guts. She would set rapid fractions early and, more often than not, be there first at the finish line. And, she would do it while conceding substantial weight to the field.

Her most significant win was the Prioress at Belmont on July 4. Two starts before, she was beaten a nose by Cat Chat - to whom she was conceding eight pounds - in the Nassau County. In the Prioress, Xtra Heat dueled with another filly through fractions of 21.92 seconds and 44.63 and 56.07 before stopping the clock in 1:08.26. Cat Chat finished last.

Although she finished second to Victory Ride in the Grade 1 Test, Xtra Heat won three straight races to earn her spot in the BC Sprint. Breaking from post 2 on a track that didn't favor the inside, she again set rapid fractions before grudgingly giving way to Squirtle Squirt, losing by a half-length.

Her Eclipse Award was a popular choice among horsemen. Richard Englander, who won an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding owner, paid tribute to Xtra Heat during a conference call Monday night with reporters.

"She was one of my favorites," Englander said. "The race she ran in the Breeders' Cup Sprint was just absolutely amazing. I'm glad she got what she got tonight."