Affirmed set the stage today for what will be one of the greatest racing confrontations in years.

He won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park with an impressive performance that indicated he is ready for his showdown with Spectacular Bid. That probably will occur here two weeks from now in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Affirmed scored by 2 1/2 lengths over Coastal, whom Spectacular Bid had trounced by six lengths in the Marlboro Cup. But the relatively narrow margin didn't begin to convey the extent of Affirmed's superiority. He demonstrated the combination of speed and tractability that has made him the top money-winning thoroughbred of all time.

Affirmed broke alertly, as usual, but when longshot Mister Brea rushed up to take the lead, jockey Laffit Pincay let him take it. In a 1 1/4 mile race, Pincay was in no hurry.

He was continuing to stalk the leader on the backstretch when the jockeys on his two principal rivals decided it was time to make their moves. Jean Cruguet drove Czaravich up alongside Affirmed, and Ruben Hernandez moved Coastal outside them both. Almost any jockey, in this position, would have felt obliged to hold off these challenges, but Pincay didn't move a muscle.

"I wasn't ready," he said. "I wanted to wait until the three-eights pole."

Many in the crowd of 23,495 were gasping as they saw the 2-to-5 favorite drop back to fourth, with a wall of horses in front of him. But when Pincay did let Affirmed run, he quickly calmed their anxieties.

At the three-eights pole, he saw plenty of running room between the tiring Mister Brea and Czaravich, and he drove Affirmed into the opening. Affirmed promptly opened a three-length lead. Within seconds, the 26th Woodward Stakes was history.

"I knew nobody was going to pass him," Pincay said later.

Affirmed clocked 2:01 3/5 on the sloppy track. He paid $2.80, $2.40, and $2.10 Costal returned $3.20 and $2.10. Czaravich paid $2.10 to show.

The outcome was no surprise, but it was a relief to trainer Laz Barrera, who worried whether his champion colt had had enough activity recently to win at the demanding distance. The Marlboro Cup two weeks ago would have given him the perfect preparation, but Barrera skipped it because he didn't like the weight assignments. So he had to get Affirmed ready on workouts alone for his first serious race since mid-June.

We suffered for this one and waited a long time," Barrera said. "Any time you don't race a horse for four months you're going to be concerned. But I'm not worried now."

Indeed, Barrera is in a strong position, having given Affirmed the perfect prep for the 1 1/2 mile Gold Cup. Spectacular Bid passed today's race because a fever set back his training slightly, but now Bud Delp is in the tougher position. He has to get Bid ready for a demanding race with workouts.

"It's going to be a hell of a race," Barrera said. "Everyone is invited."