Xtra Heat will stare into the face of history when she enters the starting gate today in the Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park.
The 5-year-old mare based at Laurel could become North America's leading female thoroughbred in stakes wins. She is tied at 24 with Susan's Girl, a three-time champion who raced in the 1970s.
The $200,000 Barbara Fritchie, a Grade II stakes of seven furlongs for females, and the $200,000 General George Handicap, a Grade II stakes of seven furlongs for males, will headline the revamped Laurel card.
The two races, Laurel's most prestigious of the winter, were rescheduled from last weekend after the history-making snowstorm forced cancellation of racing. The $75,000 Maryland Racing Media Handicap also will take place today.
But all eyes will be on Xtra Heat, the undersized mare with the dazzling speed who has won 25 of 34 races and earned $2.3 million. After being purchased for $5,000 as an unraced 2-year-old, she has outrun her pedigree, overcome her size and surpassed all expectations.
"She exudes class," said Alan Goldberg, who trained the sprinting filly Safely Kept and has raced horses against Xtra Heat. "She walks around the paddock like a little pony. But when they spring the starting gate, she's gone."
Winning at eight different tracks, running in three Breeders' Cups, challenging males five times and earning her reputation as a little horse with a big heart, Xtra Heat has developed an ardent following. She might be the most popular thoroughbred in training.
As Xtra Heat confronts the past, what image is cast back upon the little horse? Where do her accomplishments rank among those of the great fillies and mares?
Granted, her career is still a work in progress, but Xtra Heat in her 35th start is not the top female sprinter of all time. Ta Wee, champion sprinter in 1969 and 1970, earned that distinction with a record of 15 wins in 21 starts, including three victories over males in four tries.
Trained by Scotty Schulhofer for Tartan Stable, Ta Wee captured the six-furlong Fall Highweight Handicap at Belmont Park in 1969 carrying 130 pounds and again in 1970 carrying 140 pounds. She defeated males in those races and again in the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap at Aqueduct.
Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century ranks Ta Wee a rather lowly 80. Sixteen fillies and mares are rated higher, beginning with Ruffian at 35.
Those females excelled at a distance. That is the gauge of greatness. Sprinting is a specialty, populated by horses limited in ability. They simply can't go long. They are not ranked among the great horses because they don't run in the great races, which are contested from one mile to 1 1/2 miles.
Xtra Heat has competed once in a race longer than seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile). After winning her first six races as a 2-year-old, all sprints, she contested the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at 1 1/16 miles. She was crowded at the start and finished 10th, 21 1/2 lengths behind the winner. That was by far her worst performance.
Another gauge of greatness are victories in graded stakes. Grade I stakes are the toughest and most prestigious.
Susan's Girl, with whom Xtra Heat is tied with 24 stakes wins, captured eight Grade I stakes at distances from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles. She won those races on both coasts in 1973 and 1975 - and was voted champion older female both years.
Stakes were first graded - or rated - in 1973. In 1972, when Susan's Girl was voted champion 3-year-old filly, she won at least four stakes that are rated Grade I today. So her tally in Grade I stakes or equivalent was at least 12. She's ranked 51st among the top 100 thoroughbreds.
Xtra Heat has won one Grade I stakes, the six-furlong Prioress at Belmont when she was 3. She has won five Grade II stakes and four Grade III.
For a sprinting filly or mare to win more Grade I races, she must compete against males, a third gauge of greatness. Xtra Heat has challenged males five times and beaten them once - in the Grade III Phoenix Breeders' Cup, a six-furlong sprint at Keeneland.
Four times she has faced males, and lost, in Grade I stakes. She performed admirably each time, finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 2001, third in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash in 2001, third in the Golden Shaheen in Dubai in 2002 and sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 2002.
Her crowning achievement so far has been her second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint two years ago, when she was 3 and facing what some rated as the toughest international sprint field ever assembled. That stellar effort earned Xtra Heat the Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old filly. She is the only pure sprinter to win the award.
A filly born in Maryland, the speedy Safely Kept, managed to do what Xtra Heat has so far been unable to do. After finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 1989, Safely Kept won the race in 1990 when Dayjur, with whom she dueled to the wire, jumped a shadow and lost crucial ground.
Safely Kept retired in 1991 with 24 wins in 31 races, a record similar to Xtra Heat's. According to Goldberg, who trained Safely Kept, and the jockey Rick Wilson, who rode Safely Kept three times and is Xtra Heat's regular rider, the two mares rank side-by-side.
"Safely Kept was an awesome filly. She was twice as big as Xtra Heat," Wilson said. "But she didn't run any faster than Xtra Heat does.
"Xtra Heat ranks with Safely Kept or any of them. She's more consistent, really. She hasn't missed a dance. She never ducks anybody. She just keeps coming."
A Barbara Fritchie victory would chisel Xtra Heat's name into the history books. A victory March 29 in Dubai in the $2 million Golden Shaheen, the world's richest sprint, against a field of males from around the world, would prompt a new evaluation of her career, which at least will be recalled passionately for its consistency, longevity and overachievement.