A van was scheduled to pull into the Laurel Park barn area about 5:30 a.m. today and load up a little filly set to embark upon the biggest venture of her life.
Trainer John Salzman Sr. was to lead Xtra Heat onto the van for the start of a trip halfway around the world - to Dubai in the Middle East. There, on March 23, if all goes according to plan, Xtra Heat will compete in the richest sprint race in the world, the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
The six-furlong race will be part of racing's richest day. Fifteen million dollars will be distributed among horse owners gathered from around the world. Six million dollars will be the purse for one race alone, the Dubai World Cup. That's the race Cigar won in its inaugural running in 1996.
It doesn't get any bigger than this. So how amazing is it that Xtra Heat, the $5,000 filly from Maryland, will likely be favored in a $2 million race on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup?
How amazing is it that six days ago she did something no sprinter had ever done? She won the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old filly. She out-polled the winners of such renowned races as the Alabama, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff.
How amazing? Pretty darned amazing - and pretty darned wonderful, too.
The regulars at Laurel Park can't stop talking about the bustling crowd and old-fashioned enthusiasm Xtra Heat generated last Saturday with her convincing victory in the $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap - her 19th win in 24 races.
At the Eclipse Awards Monday in Miami Beach, Fla., the distinguished crowd in tuxedos and gowns gave Xtra Heat perhaps the biggest ovation of the night. It's not a stretch to say that she might be the most popular horse in training in North America.
Salzman, her trainer and one of three local owners, decided to take her to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates early so that she could adjust to the desert weather. She may also need time - as may her trainer - to recover from the journey.
From Laurel this morning, they were scheduled to travel by van to New York, arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport about 10:30. They were to wait until 6:30 p.m., when their cargo plane with built-in stalls will depart for the other side of the world.
With a stop in France for refueling, Xtra Heat and Salzman will arrive in Dubai about 17 hours after leaving New York.
Salzman will serve as Xtra Heat's caretaker until his sons, Tim and John Jr., fly over March 17. Xtra Heat's other owners, Kenneth Taylor and Harry Deitchman, also will make the trip. Harry Vega, the Maryland jockey, will fly over five days before the race to ride Xtra Heat.
Salzman said that the agent for Jerry Bailey, the five-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey, called three times asking for the mount.
"You've got to stop to think that Bailey's a big-money rider," Salzman said. "But I'm not going take Harry Vega off. He's ridden her perfect. He'll be a little more excited than Bailey would. Maybe he'll try harder."
The six furlongs of the Dubai Golden Shaheen is all straightaway. That's a new challenge for the laid-back Xtra Heat (where does she change leads, for instance?), but it also plays to her strength.
"There won't be a lot of strategy involved," Salzman said. "Just step on the gas and go. Then, it's a matter of who's fastest, and who's got the biggest heart down the lane."
And who's faster or has a bigger heart than Xtra Heat?
Around the tracks
Two stallions from Kentucky have arrived in Maryland just in time for the 2002 breeding season.
Eastern Echo (Damascus-Wild Applause, by Northern Dancer) and Jazz Club (Dixieland Band-Hidden Garden, by Mr. Prospector) stood last year at Will Farish's Lane's End Farm. They will stand at the Rooney family's Shamrock Farms in Woodbine - the 14-year-old Eastern Echo for $3,000, the 7-year-old Jazz Club for $3,500.
Delaware Park has rejoined the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Bill Rickman Jr., who owns the track, said that the NTRA would provide marketing assistance as well as ensure coverage of the next two Delaware handicaps on ESPN. Delaware Park opens April 27.
When the first session of Churchill Downs' 2002 Kentucky Derby future wager closed last Sunday, "the field" (all 3-year-olds except the 23 listed) was the 5-2 favorite. Of the 23 individual horses available for betting, the top choices were Johannesburg at 7-1, Repent and Siphonic at 8-1, Saarland at 11-1, Came Home at 14-1 and Harlan's Holiday at 17-1. The Laurel-based Saratoga Blues was 26-1.
The second session of the future wager (a minimum $2 bet on the winner of the Derby) will be March 14-17, and the third session will be April 4-7. The Derby will be May 4 at Churchill Downs, followed two weeks later by the Preakness at Pimlico.