Roo Art ran so well at Laurel Race Course this winter that his owner and trainer wanted to give him a shot at the big time. But even they could not have imagined how big his opportunities might be.

The colt from Maryland will be a strong contender when he faces Proud Truth and a dozen other 4-year-olds Sunday in the $500,000 Charles H. Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. In fact, if he makes the East-to-West transition successfully, he might be the horse to beat.

Roo Art is a powerful finisher in long races, and he is versatile enough to have beaten some of the best sprinters in Maryland at seven furlongs. What he lacked back home were money-making opportunities. The biggest race he won in five starts this winter carried a $22,000 purse. So owner Barbara Holleran and trainer Barclay Tagg approached Wayne Lukas, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer, and asked if Roo Art could join his New York stable.

Lukas said yes, although he had no idea what kind of horse he was getting. To find out, he entered Roo Art in the Assault Handicap at Aqueduct, a race in which another Lukas horse, Artichoke, was the solid favorite.

Coming from last place, Roo Art blew away Artichoke and the rest of the field, winning by 3 1/2 lengths in sensational time. "I was just guessing with him before the race," Lukas admitted. "But I knew what kind of horse Artichoke is, and when Roo Art beat him so easily, I said, 'We've got a horse for the Strub.' "

The entire field, in post position order, consists of Proud Truth, Schiller, Catane, Right Con, Roo Art, All Hands on Deck, First Norman, Witan, Nostalgia's Star, Herat, Lucky N Green, Fast Account, Will Dancer and Encolure.