10/09/2008 12:00AM

Right candidate for the race

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Magical Fantasy, with Alex Solis up, wins the Grade 1, $350,000 Del Mar Oaks in her last start. Magical Fantasy will try to make it two Grade 1 wins in a row in Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland.P

ARCADIA, Calif. - As far as Chuck Winner can recall, it was sometime last January that he found himself near the village of Newmarket, deep in England's classic horse country, nose to nose with a chestnut filly living in relative solitude in the peaceful yard of her owners. Winner was a long way from his West Coast stomping grounds, but he felt right at home.

"I love to do that sort of thing, look for the needle in a haystack," said Winner, who earns his keep devising campaigns for ballot propositions. "She was a big, beautiful filly, with a wonderful way of moving. Very kind, and it was clear her people took very good care of her. That night I called David and told him about her. 'You in? And even if you're not, I'm buying her.'"

David Bienstock, Winner's partner in such stakes winners as Three Degrees and Yankee Bravo, was definitely in, along with their friend Paul Mandalbach. The filly, named Magical Fantasy, took it from there. She came within a nose and a controversial stewards call of winning her American debut last May in the Senorita Stakes at Hollywood Park, followed that with two losing but closing efforts in the Honeymoon and American Oaks, and then popped at 42-1 with a powerful finish to win the Del Mar Oaks.

Now Magical Fantasy is on to Keeneland, where she will run Saturday in the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, the final big dance of the season for 3-year-old fillies. Her opposition is choice, topped by Santa Anita Oaks winner Ariege, San Clemente Handicap winner Storm Mesa, Garden City Stakes winner Backseat Rhythm, and Pucker Up Stakes winner Closeout. But if her Del Mar race was a true bill, Magical Fantasy should be right in the mix.

The QEII has been a good race from the beginning. The Queen usually doesn't show, but the money spends. The winners include Plenty of Grace, Ryafan, Perfect Sting, Ticker Tape, and Vacare. Just as significant is the list of those who were not quite good enough on the day, among them Possibly Perfect, Tout Charmant, Golden Apples, and Gorella. Last year, Bit of Whimsy pleasantly surprised trainer Barclay Tagg in the Queen Elizabeth with a 2 1/4-length score. In her wake that day were Dreaming of Anna and Costume.

With such a history, it's hard to boast a whole lot of confidence going into such a coveted event. Even so, Magical Fantasy has trained well for Paddy Gallagher since Del Mar, doing her serious work on Santa Anita's rapid fire turf course. Alex Solis has been her partner, morning and afternoon.

"After the American Oaks, we talked long and hard about running her in the Del Mar Oaks," Winner recalled. "She was something like a dozen lengths back early at Hollywood, and was beaten only five [by Pure Clan], so we couldn't fault her for that. Clearly, she was too far back. But we wanted to make sure we weren't missing something."

They didn't. At Del Mar, Magical Fantasy and Solis took full advantage of a hot pace set by Misty Ocean under pressure from Lethal Heat. As the field predictably bunched on the final turn, Solis found a way through inside before splitting the two pacesetters with a breathtaking punch. In about 10 steps, the Del Mar Oaks was history, and the tote board glowed.

Believe it or not, there are owners who might be offended at such a parimutuel slight. Winner, whose trade is based on understanding voter perceptions, did not stoop to such criticism of the betting public.

"No, I was very appreciative of her price that day," he said. "We knew she had a better chance than the odds on the board."

It was agent Richard Duggan, the man behind countless coups from the British Isles, who saw something he liked on the Magical Fantasy videos that came across his desk late last year. She had run five times as a 2-year-old, finally winning in a race cleverly called the Lingfield for Weddings Maiden Stakes, over Polytrack.

"She was a big strong filly who really shouldn't have run as a 2-year-old," Duggan said. "Bred the way she was and big as she was, she wasn't really even entitled to run as well as she did. They weren't hard on her, though. So I knew if we took our time with her, she'd develop later on."

Magical Fantasy is a daughter of Diesis out of the Easy Goer mare Kissing Gate. For those who would like to play the breeding card, the female family includes a Middle Park Stakes winner, plus various cousins named Dipping, Glancing, Surfing, Gliding, Fighting, and Yelming (whatever that is). For those who need more, Kissing Gate is also a full sister to Altabir, winner of the 2000 running of the Shadwell Mile over - what's this! - the Keeneland turf course.

Three years ago, about the time Magical Fantasy was being weaned, Winner and his partners took their gray filly Three Degrees to Keeneland in pursuit of the Challenge Cup and watched her finish fifth behind Sweet Talker and Karen's Caper. The first five that day were separated by a nose, a head, a half, and a nose.

"She ran her heart out and fifth was all she could get," Winner said. "That's how tough this race can be."

And should be.