Jockey Harry Vega has cried when riding Xtra Heat into the winner's circle after a race, such is his reverence for the indomitable filly. Co-owner Kenneth Taylor has looked at her first and foremost as a business, a small-time horse owner's dream of making more money at the racetrack than could possibly be imagined.
To trainer John Salzman, she is validation and vindication; proof that a "big, old, dumb hillbilly" based at Laurel Park can compete at the highest levels of horse racing.
For these three men, the ride on the back of possibly the greatest sprinting filly of all time may soon be coming to an end. After running in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint on Saturday at Arlington Park near Chicago, Xtra Heat, win or lose, will be vanned down to Lexington, Ky., for the Fasig-Tipton Selected November Mixed sale eight days later.
If the gavel falls on Hip No. 69, and a buyer has met the minimum asking price of $2.2 million, she will walk out of their lives forever.
"I don't want to lose her; nobody in their right mind would want to give up a good horse like that," Salzman says. "But it could be good for her."
It's hard to believe Taylor, Salzman and a third owner, Harry Deitchman, would let Xtra Heat go. All she has ever done is give them everything, rising from humble beginnings to become the richest female sprinter in racing history with $2,223,305 in earnings heading into her third Breeders' Cup.
Neither Salzman nor Taylor, however, is in the breeding business. They look for cheap, fast horses to race and then sell them. Getting an Xtra Heat was never in the plans, never in their wildest dreams.
"From the beginning, when I started with horses, I got in it for money," says Taylor, who lives in Columbia and owns a brokerage firm. "The emotion -- that's wonderful, but I'm looking to make money. I'm 50 years old. If you don't look at horse racing as a business, you'll eventually get killed."
Taylor hopes to sell Xtra Heat while she still is at her best. If she wins the Breeders' Cup Sprint, who knows what the rich might pay for her? In a sport where most rise to the top in a flash and are gone, either to the breeding shed or lost to infirmity, Xtra Heat has been as dependable as a Swiss timepiece.
Crowds swarm the rail and applaud wherever Xtra Heat races, but Taylor has not permitted himself to fall in love with her. He bristles when questioned for even thinking of selling such a filly. After nearly every victory -- 24 from 31 lifetime starts -- he has insisted she could be had for the right price, a price that has steadily risen with each dramatic feat.
"Why is everybody getting upset that we're thinking of moving this horse before she's devalued?" he asks. "There's no reason to keep her. We're not breeders. She will run another year if we don't get the price we want. She is the exception, but everybody's into this 'Rah rah,' but she's not going to run forever. I'm going to be upset she's gone, but I'm not going to turn down $2.2 million."
Taylor has steeled himself against Xtra Heat's charm, which is that of a classic Cinderella story. She originally sold for a modest $9,100 but then was dumped for $4,700 when a veterinarian told her owner Xtra Heat had lesions in her stifles -- or rear knee joints -- so bad she would never race.
Salzman spotted her at a horses of racing age sale at Timonium in April 2000, thought she looked athletic, and plucked her out for $5,000.
From there, Xtra Heat has risen to beat every top sprinter in training except recently retired champion Squirtle Squirt, whom she finished second to in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Even in defeat, her talent was so overwhelming she was named champion 3-year-old filly, a division title rarely awarded sprinters.
For Vega, 37, a journeyman who toiled most of his career riding at minor league New England tracks before moving to the mid-Atlantic, the mount on Xtra Heat will define his career.
Vega inherited Xtra Heat when regular rider Rick Wilson went down late last year in a terrible racing accident from which he still is attempting to recover. Salzman used national star Jorge Chavez last year in the Breeders' Cup, but this time will stick with Vega.
"A lot of people before me have earned [a mount like this] and never got it," Vega says. "To me, it's an honor to go to the Breeders' Cup. It's even an honor to just work a horse this good."
Salzman would be happy if Vega could just win this one more race. The 57-year-old trainer from Laurel has a reputation for being a playfully irascible character, but behind the good old boy facade is a shrewd horseman finally getting to show just how good he can be.
Xtra Heat has been Salzman's masterpiece. Through much of her career, the trainer has been criticized for not giving her time off. In fact, she has been at it without a break on the farm since her 2-year-old season.
Xtra Heat's most recent performance -- her first outright victory against males in a stakes race on Oct. 5 at Keeneland -- set her up perfectly for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Salzman says. She did it in typical style -- engaging the fastest horses in head-to-head combat, breaking their spirit and pulling away in the stretch.
The next morning, Salzman vanned Xtra Heat to Arlington Park to get her acclimated to the track and planned little more than to gallop her up to the race.
Salzman and Taylor both talk as if they hope to get her into a breeder's hands before the well runs dry. Better to win the Breeders' Cup, get the $2.2 million at auction and get out while the getting is good.
"How long," Salzman wonders, "do you think she can last?"