11/21/2001 1:00AM

Xtra Heat carries on Maryland tradition


PHILADELPHIA - Maybe, it's just a Maryland thing.

In the last quarter century, there have been a number of terrific sprinters. Most of them, however, flame on and flame out of the scene as quickly as they run.

Not so the Maryland bunch. They run early. They run often. They run consistently. They keep running.

The best pure sprinter I've ever seen was bred in Maryland, sired by a Maryland stallion, owned and trained by a Marylander.

Dave's Friend was in a rather distinguished class of 3-year-olds, including the somewhat well-known Affirmed and Alydar.

Dave's Friend was brilliant at 3 in 1978. And got better. He was so tough and so durable that he won the Count Fleet Handicap at Oaklawn Park in 1984.

He was the first pure sprinter to earn more than $1 million. Why this horse never gets nominated to the Hall of Fame is a mystery. He never won an Eclipse Award because the voters, then as now, were mostly clueless. At one time, Dave owned five track records at four different distances at four different tracks.

Trust me on this. On his day, and there were a lot of them, Dave was not going to lose.

The brilliant filly Safely Kept was by the wonderful Maryland stallion Horatius. She was a flat-out blur. She nearly won the 1989 Breeders' Cup Sprint and did win it the next year.

Every time I saw Xtra Heat run this year, I couldn't help thinking of Safely Kept. Nobody ever seemed to take her seriously in the summer and fall of 1989. Until she came within a few yards of wiring the best sprinters in America.

Same deal with Xtra Heat. I never understood why nobody was taking her seriously since her merits seemed fairly obvious.

She's not Maryland bred, but she was bought by Marylanders at the Timonium Sales for $5,000.

Kenny Taylor got another partner interested and, along with trainer John Salzman, they have overseen a career without pause. Since her debut on July 16, 2000, Xtra Heat has raced 22 times. Her longest "break'' was six weeks.

It's astonishing that somebody hasn't tired to take Salzman's license away. These sorts of things just aren't done anymore.

How dare he actually run his filly? In an era when trainers are praised for not running and horses have become more fragile than ever before, the Xtra Heat people have taken the road not traveled.

They have decided to let Xtra Heat do what she is supposed to be doing - race other horses.

That Taylor is a longtime horseplayer himself may account for how Xtra Heat is being campaigned. If you spend enough time at the track, you understand that there are no rules against actually entering and running horses.

In a time where few want to take chances and nearly everybody wants an edge, all the Xtra Heat people want to do is run their horse in the next spot. Could be an overnight stakes at Delaware Park. Or it could be the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

No matter. Wind her up and let her go.

There has been some talk in recent weeks about Xtra Heat getting some kind of an Eclipse Award. After making the race, but losing the De Francis because she made the race, Xtra Heat may not get best sprinter. And she may not be voted 3-year-old filly champion although it wouldn't be a difficult case to make for either award.

Maybe Xtra Heat can get an attendance award. If half of life is indeed showing up, she is due a very special reward. Just like Maryland predecessors Dave's Friend and Safely Kept, Xtra Heat just keeps showing up. In an era when horses are retired to stud after recording a big maiden win Beyer, that should mean something.