Marc McLean went to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, even told some friends from Connecticut to join him. His family’s big horse – well, a big horse his family bred – named Xtra Heat was running in the Sprint.
Into the paddock for the $1 million race stepped the small 3-year-old filly. She’d won nine races that year, but this was different. This was the world. This was Kona Gold, Caller One, Left Bank, Delaware Township, Peeping Tom and Squirtle Squirt. This was major-league stuff, not the Sweet and Sassy Stakes – Xtra Heat’s Delaware Park prep which she won by 11 1/2 lengths at five cents on the dollar.
“My one friend was a total racing neophyte and we went down to the paddock for the race,” recalled McLean in June. “Here comes this tiny little filly with a rope shank on her against these colts with flames coming out of their nostrils. This friend of mine turns to me and says, ‘Mark I’m so sorry.’ “
Xtra Heat didn’t apologize. She blasted out of the gate so fast that Jorge Chavez briefly bounced back in the saddle, and led at every call but the last one – beaten a half-length by Squirtle Squirt after 6 furlongs in 1:08.41. She set fractions of :22.45, :44.75 and :56.30 and lost. McLean still feels like she could have, should have, might have, won. Chavez was subbing for the injured Rick Wilson and had never ridden the filly. Squirtle Squirt found racing room at just the right time . . .
“They say you remember the close losses more than the wins,” he said. “I’ll always remember that day.”
Xtra Heat provided one more memory Friday with her induction into racing’s Hall of Fame. Bred by most of the McLean family – Pope Sr., Pope Jr., Marc, Pope Jr.’s father-in-law Pete Feringa – and then farm marketing consultant Scott Rion, Xtra Heat was all Crestwood Farm. Her sire, Dixieland Heat, stood there. The McLeans purchased her dam, a daughter of Hatchet Man named Begin, for $20,000 at Keeneland November 1995. Pedigree consultant Rob Keck planned the mating.
They might have hoped, but nobody expected greatness.
“She was a nice looking individual, but at the time I don’t think she seemed all that special,” said Pope McLean Sr. “I’d be lying if I said I could tell she was going to be a champion but I remember she was nice looking, well-developed and looked the part.”
Three years after buying Begin, Crestwood sold Xtra Heat as a weanling at Keeneland November for $9,100.
The following year, she brought $4,700 as a yearling and the McLeans were shocked at the depreciation. The next year that she went for just $5,000 as a 2-year-old on a bid by Maryland trainer John Salzman Sr. and owner Ken Taylor.
Let’s just say she was one of the great bargains this side of the Louisiana Purchase.
“That’s the beauty of this game, the beauty of this whole business – that uncertainty,” said McLean Sr. “Everybody’s got a chance. You don’t have to spend a million dollars to get a good racehorse. Someone can come along and pick up a filly like that and accomplish what she did. It would be beyond your wildest dreams.”
Based with Salzman in Maryland, Xtra Heat won her first six starts, 12 of her first 13 and 26 of 35 overall. She won an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2001, went to the Breeders’ Cup three times, finished third in Dubai, earned just shy of $2.4 million and brought another seven-figure payday when sold at the end of her career.
Though they no longer owned her, the McLeans went along for the ride. When Xtra Heat shipped to Keeneland for the Grade 2 Beaumont, the breeders were there.
“When she won at Keeneland, I think people still didn’t believe it was for real,” McLean Sr. said. “People felt there was no way Xtra Heat could beat Raging Fever, but she did. She put it to her. I had tears in my eyes watching her pull away from that filly.
“If everybody could have a connection one time with a nice racehorse like that, there would be more people in the business. That was a thrill that was hard to equal.”
Until Friday anyway.