Updated on 09/16/2011 7:39AM

Bargain buy Fancy As takes shot at big boys


ARCADIA, Calif. - Red and Linda Smith had a good reason for staying at a yearling sale in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1999 after being outbid for the horse they wanted.

"I had an empty spot in the trailer," Red Smith said.

Smith, one of western Canada's top trainers, combed the catalog in search of another prospect. He found one, paying $2,148 for a Manitoba-bred with modest breeding.

Fancy As, the colt the Smiths bought at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society yearling sale that September day, has turned out to be a gold mine, and the latest proof that Manitoba can produce more than world-class hockey players.

After winning 13 of 15 starts and $548,720 on the western Canada circuit at 2 and 3, Fancy As, now 4, makes his first start in the United States in Saturday's $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes at Santa Anita.

Smith, who won the 2001 training title at Stampede Park in Calgary, admits that a dose of good fortune led him and his wife to Fancy As.

"We weren't going to the sale and we changed our mind," he said. "We only had room for one [horse] to come home. It was luck."

Saturday's race will help determine where Fancy As races in 2002.

For the last month, Fancy As has been trained in California by Bob Baffert. Last summer, Baffert tried to buy Fancy As, but the Smiths turned him down. "They were trying to buy him for three months," Smith said. "We would have sold him, but we would have been in a bad situation on income tax. The price was fair, but we would have to have given half of it away."

The Smiths and Baffert spoke again in late fall after Fancy As was shipped to Florida for a winter campaign. Baffert urged the Smiths to send Fancy As to California for the Strub Series for 4-year-olds, which includes the San Fernando and the $400,000 Strub Stakes on Feb. 2.

Fancy As impressed Smith, 63, even before he started. "Even before I ran him, I knew he was quite capable," he said. "He's got such a big stride on him. It's just smooth. When we started to breeze him, we knew he'd be a nice colt."

Fancy As won his career debut in a maiden race over 3 1/2 furlongs at Stampede Park in June 2000.

Fancy As lost his next start, finishing second in the Graduation Stakes at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, but was flawless for the next 13 months, winning nine straight races. Along the way, he won eight stakes and an allowance race, competing at Assiniboia Downs, Stampede Park, and Northlands Park in Edmonton.

The winning streak ended in the Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs last August, when Fancy As finished second to Stage Classic. Fancy As reversed that result in the Canadian Derby at Northlands Park 19 days later.

The Manitoba Derby loss still irks Smith.

"When I took him over to Winnipeg, that horse got away from us," Smith said, referring to Stage Classic. "It was unfortunate. There was a slow pace and [Fancy As] couldn't get by them. He was in front a few jumps after the wire."

Fancy As won two more stakes in the fall at Hastings Park in Vancouver - the British Columbia Derby and Premiers Stakes - to end his 3-year-old campaign with eight wins in nine starts.

The victories came over distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 3/8 miles, and made Fancy As a finalist for the Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding 3-year-old male.

Smith considered a late-season race at Woodbine in Toronto for Fancy As, but instead he sent Fancy As to Florida. Then, Baffert called again.

Smith and Baffert agreed that Baffert would train Fancy As during the Santa Anita meeting at a time when Smith's Canadian stable was taking a wintertime break.

For Baffert, Fancy As has had several quick workouts, including six furlongs in 1:10 from the gate on Dec. 26, the best of 30 works at the distance that day, and seven furlongs in 1:23.80 on Jan. 1.

"He doesn't seem to get tired," Smith said. "I told Baffert, 'He's a funny horse. He keeps going.' I think he's doing better than Baffert expected him to. You don't expect the horse to work in [1:10]."

Baffert is concerned that the 1 1/16 miles of the San Fernando may be too short for Fancy As, and that the gelding may be better suited to the Strub distance of 1 1/8 miles or the 1 1/4 miles of the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 2. "I think the farther the better," Baffert said. "I think it will be a good test, but I think he'll handle it. It's a dream come true for them. Red's a good trainer. The horse came in here looking good."

Smith knows the San Fernando is a vital test for Fancy As. As much as Fancy As has accomplished at smaller tracks, the gelding must prove he is good enough on a larger stage. "I hope he runs competitively, that would be my biggest thing," Smith said. "If he can't compete, we'll probably send him up to Toronto. I never dreamed he'd get this far."

Jockey Gary Stevens is confident that Fancy As will be competitive in Saturday's race. He recalls that 12 years ago many were skeptical of the ability of Mister Frisky, who had won 13 races in Puerto Rico before arriving in California in the winter of 1990. Mister Frisky won three stakes at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby, before failing as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He later finished third in the Preakness Stakes.

"When they win that many [races] they've had to overcome some adversity and they've made their own luck," Stevens said.

Fancy As has not attracted the same attention as a Triple Crown prospect. But if he wins the San Fernando and joins the list of contenders for the Santa Anita Handicap, he will prove again that good horses come from the most unlikely places.