The long-awaited confrontation of Spectacular Bid and Affirmed won't take Lace in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park Saturday, just as it didn't take place in the Marlboro Cup two weeks ago.

Affirmed had ducked the Marlboro, because trainer Laz Barrera didn't want to run him in a race in which he would have to concede nine pounds to his younger rival.But now Spectacular Bid is the ducker and Affirmed the duckee.

Trainer Bud Delp says that Bid is missing the race because a slight fever interrupted his training, but there are reasons to believe he never intended to run Saturday. Immediately after the Marlboro, before he knew anything about a fever, he was hedging about his future plans. He told Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated, "We danced one dance. Maybe we should let Affirmed dance one alone in the Woodward."

Why are both trainers playing these games of cat and mouse? What ever happened to the good old days when a man would run his horse against the toughest opposition, under the toughest conditions, just to find out how good the animal was?

Those good old days ended at approximately the same time that the era of $1 million yearlings and $15 million stallions began. The soaring value of thoroughbread bloodstock has raised the stakes involved in championship races. It is changing the very nature of the sport.

When Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont Stakes, he lost much more than the purse money. His aura of invincibility was shattered, and breeding experts say that his value as a stallion prospect may have plummeted by as much as $8 million in the span of 2 1/2 minutes.

The outcome of his meeting with Affirmed may mean millions of dollars, too. In a game with such high stakes, even millionaire owners like Harry Meyerhoff and Louis Wolfson have to hesitate before they throw their chips in the pot.

The thoroughbred market has been booming because buyers throughout the world view horses just as they do gold, silver or fine art: they are commodities that keep their value in times of inflation. Because of the powerful demand for the progeny of highquality stallions, a good horse can earn much more in the breeding shed than he can on the track. So a rational owner must treat his horse's racing career merely as a means for establishing his worth at stud.

That worth, in the case of a horse like Spectacular Bid, can be astonishingly high.John Finney, president of the Fasig-Tipton Co. that conducts many major thoroughbred sales, estimated how much Bid can earn as a stallion next year.

The colt could be booked to 35 mares, Finney said, for a down payment of $20,000 plus $80,000 for a live foal. That is a guaranteed return of $700,000. And if Bid got just 70 percent of the mares in foal (a conservation estimate), he could earn another $2 million.

Since a stallion's value won't diminish much in his first five years at stud -- it atkes that long for a horse to prove himself a failure -- Bid could earn $13.5 million over the next five years.

If Meyerhoff decided to syndicate Spectacular Bid, he might sell 36 shares -- entitling each shareholder to breed one more per season -- for upwards of $350,000 apiece. The outcome of Bid's race with Affirmed could influence the price considerably, but if he won, Meyerhoff could hope to get$20 million from a syndication. Affirmed has already been syndicated for $14.4 million.

With so much money involved, the owner of a good horse has only one rational move open to him: establish the animal's value, take as few risks as possible, and then get him to stud in a hurry.

The owners of Affirmed and Spectacular Bid can hardly be blamed for treating their properties protectively. If they ran their horese in unnecessarily tough spots for the sake of sportsmanship, they would have to have their sanity questioned.