The sun rose this morning at 6:47, badly beaten by Spectacular Bid and Affirmed. The sun paid $2.20 to show. Lesson No. 1: the only time that matters at a race track is the time it takes to go from the starting gate to the finish line.

Bid was up at 3 a.m., well before the rooster and the sun. Mo Hall, Bid's 52-year-old groom who could pass for 82 and be Bachelor No. 2 on The Geriatric Dating Game, walked through Barn 10, stopped in front of Stall 12, said something like, "Rise and shine, you hoss," and gently placed a bucket containing two quarts of oats near Bid's feet. At 3 in the morning, the temperature at Belmont Park was no more than 50 and besides Mo Hall, the only other person awake in Barn 10 was a Pinkerton guard wearing a leatherjacket and carrying a loaded gun.

Affirmed was up at 4:15, poking his head out Stall 2 in Barn 47, waiting on his 48-year-old groom, Juan Alanix. "He look for me allatime," Alaniz said. "Every morning, he cry till he see me." Alaniz, had company as he brought Affirmed a similar bucket of oats; another armed Pinkerton. Alaniz nodded to him as he passed, then turned his attention to Affirmed, who looked "berry good, berry, berry good" in the predawn pitch.

In neither barn was there even a mention of this afternoon's Gold Cup, this afternoon's race of the decade.

No pressure.

No pleas.

Just oats, darkness and a man with a loaded gun.

Another day on the dawn patrol.

"That early in the morning, there's no way they know they're racing," said Bud Delp, Bid's trainer. "They don't figure it out until early afternoon when they get hungry and nobody comes around to feed them. Then they know. And then they start getting ready."

The Belmont Park you see on television is an exquisitely manicured place. There are freshly planted mums in the paddock. The two manmade lakes in the infield, under a bright sun, are the pale blue of star sapphires. The grass is so very green, the color of bibb lettuce.

All this, of course, is to give the track the look of kings -- to perpetuate a myth started long ago and far away, the lord to the manor born, staking his honor on the speed of his horse. But all the lords and ladies then, and the owners, the trainers, and jockets, the grooms and even the bettors now, they simply have the speaking parts.

The horses were and are the stars. And the horses live away from the manor, in barns, as befits them. They sleep on straw or on wood shavings and eat hay and oats. Their stalls are no bigger than a walk-in closet in Palm Beach.

Except for their 1 to 2 1/2 minutes in full flight, in full silk on the track, they are blue-collor laborers. If "Hamlet" were performed by an all-equine cast, the only line of significance would be, "Get Thee to a Barn."

There, the paints are peeling and the lighting, far from being recessed or tracked, is simply 40-watt bulbs providing safe harbor for moths and mosquitoes. There are mud puddles and stray cats and dogs.

And the smells, well, the smells are mostly manure and straw, which are probably never going to replace musk or timberline in an English Leather catalog.

But the barns are where most of it really happens. The days and weeks and months of preparation for the 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of regal crescendo. And the best time to go to the barns, especially on the day of those annual Races of the Decade, is in the morning. Early. Very early.

At 5:50 this morning, when the sky was painted black and the chill was such that your breath came out in cotton puffs, Bud Delp got out of his Fleetwood Cadillac limousine and walked through Barn 10 to see his horse.

Against the cold, Delp wore a simple blue windbreaker with this slogan on the back: "Spectacular Bid is Spectacular." A full moon shone and a rooster crowed as Delp approached Bid, reaching out to touch his face, then disappearing into the stall.

"I drive him whenever he's in town," said the chauffeur. "He's a real man, nothing kiddish about him. He didn't say all that much in the car, at least not much I can talk about. But one thing that he did say is that he's got a winner here."

The moon danced off Delp's bald head as he reappeared from inside the stall, and he paced softly as Robert Smith, the exercise boy, began walking Bid around the inside of the barn, getting him limber for the morning gallop.

It was 6:45 and the official sunrise was only 2 minutes away when Delp led Bid out of the barn and onto the track, a distance of some 50 yards. "I'm just gonna give him a little gallop," Delp said. "Nothing more than that. Gotta save something for this afternoon."

Delp has this habit of smiling after almost every sentence. It is a familiar smile, one that Billy Carter has worn for years -- a quickie, a reflex action. "So far, so good." Delp said as Bid, with Smith on his back, began to trot. He watched carefully as Bid went into a gallop, and apparently he saw just what he wanted to see because after Bid, snorting as he came by, completed one lap, Delp said, "Couldn't be better. Couldn't be better. Perfect."

By 6:57, after less than 10 full minutes on the track itself, Delp led the horse back into the barn where he would be walked some more to cool, off, bathed, walked some more, fed again -- but only two more quarts of oats, for a total of four quarts, 10 quarts less than his usual daily ration -- and rested until 1 1/2 hours before the race.

But most of that would come later. Now, at 7:15 in the morning, with the sun bright and promising to be brilliant, Delp came outside the barn to talk. And what he led off with surprised no one.

"I feel the same as I did yesterday," Delp said. "I'm confident. I think I'm gonna win it. I think it'll be Affirmed and Spectacular Bid all the way, and I think there'll be daylight between them when I beat him." Delp is almost always a good interview, a compulsive talker, probably with a gift for knowing when he is being fed a straight line.

"Any sure bets today, Bud?" someone asked.

"Yeah, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid to show," Delp said.

"How do you deal with the pressure, Bud?"

"I get two rooms ?n my hotel. One where the phone rings, and one where I stay."

"Say, Bud, what did the exercise boy tell you after he galloped Bid?"

"Go to the window."

And then someone asked, but seriously, Bud, how do you feel? And suddenly, the smile was gone, because, seriously, Bud Delp was feeling antsy.

"I'm uptight now. I feel tense. I'll go back to my hotel and watch the baseball game -- Geez, did you see Bumbry drop that ball last night? I coulda killed him. But I guess I'll be thinking about the race all day. How'm I gonna not think about it? I been thinking about it ever since the Preakness. This is the biggie. Anyone got eyes can see that."

It was already light when Laz Barbera got to Barn 47, parked his Cadillac with the "Barrera" plates outside and walking in to check on his horse, Affirmed.

The barn area no longer seemed such a city of the undead. The cars and trucks were still rolling, but in the light they no longer saw with only their headlights, no longer moved like an Army convoy in the blackness. You could see faces now, not just shadows. The strong wind was taking the bad smell up into the air, and what was left was fresh and strangely clean. As night gives way to day, apprehension always gives way to confidence.

"I feel very confident." Barrera said. He stood inside his office, inside the barn that bears his orange and black colors, bundled up against the cold in a tan quilt jacket. On the walls surrounding him were color pictures and newspaper clippings favorable to Affirmed. It had been less than a year since Barrera underwent open heart surgery. He no longer rushes into anything -- not a race, not a conversation. You want his pearls, you open the oyster slowly.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "I'm too old in the business for that. I did all my study last night. The race, I take it as it comes now. I did my job. Nothing more I can do. Up to the jockey now.Affirmed, he real smart horse, most intelligent horse I ever have. You know what he do all day today? He sleep. He rest. He know what comes later. Very intelligent. Hate to be dirty. Very proud of heemself, you see. Urinate in one corner. Manure in other corner -- never where he sleep."

A photographer came by and asked Barrera if he would mind posing with Affirmed. Nothing strenuous. Just a few shots. Barrera's shoulders shrugged. "Hokay," he said. "A few. What else can I do?"

And Barrera, ever so much calmer -- by necessity, not necessarily by choice -- than Delp, moved to Affirmed. Called to him, "C'mere, Daddy. C'mere Daddy." And Affirmed, recognizing the gentle touch and call, leaned his head from the stall, like a child seeking approval from a parent, and tried to nuzzle.

"Closer, Laz," the photographer said.

"You crazy?" Barrera said. "I get closer, he bite me."

Today is not like yesterday.

It never is.

Today, Bid and Affirmed meet in a race to decide which one will be named horse of the year. Both champions. Both gladiators. Friday, as they rested in their stalls -- located about three-quarters of a mile apart -- they seemed to have about as much in common as moose and deer. Four legs. Good in cartoons. That's it.

At noon Friday, Bid was still recuperating from his five-hour vanning from Pilmico. Leaning against the wall in his stall, his forelegs bent, his head slouching toward the straw on the floor, his tail hanging limp, he was straight out of "Cat Ballou." Put Lee Marvin on his back and you had a poster suitable for framing.

"He's resting," Mo Hall said. "Half asleep now, but he knows he gonna run tomorrow."

How Bid knew was one of the mysteries of life. To an untrained eye, Bid looked like the only thing he could possibly have known is that sleeping on a Sealy Posturepedic beats sleeping standing up on straw any day of the week. Had a cyclone ripped through Barn 10 it is unlikely that Bid would have even felt a breeze.

"It may not look like it," Bob Smith said, "but Bid knows just what's going on. These horses aren't dumb. I bet Bid'll know Affirmed when they meet, too. It's something the great ones give off to each other."

Maybe it was the sound of Smith's voice.

Who knows?

But just then Bid shook himself loose from the sleep he seemed to covet so and turned slightly, revealing -- for the first time in 30 minutes -- something other than his rear end. He peered lazily out of his stall, his mostly black head spattered here and there with white, giving him toe demeanor of an aging college professor, a wise man taking on the colors of wisdom.

"Go on back to sleep," Smith said.

Bid snorted.

So much for activity in Barn 10. But in Barn 47 Affirmed was, in contract, manic. He nibbled at a ball of hay, fastened like a pinata outside his stall. He clearly enjoyed company. Where Bid had vacant stalls on either side, Affirmed had company on both. Where Bid wore hospital-white bandages on his legs, Affirmed wore bright pink. Where Bid slept on straw, Affirmed slept on wood shavings, a crisper smell to be sure. But the biggest difference was in their respective looks -- Affirmed was simply magnificent. Huge and chestnut with a white blaze bisecting his face. So richly chestnut that in the light he seemed almost burgundy. If there is such a thing as star quality on four legs, Affirmed has it.

"He love the people," Alaniz said. "He like the people go take his picture. He stop and smile for the poeple. He real show bix, you know?"

Alaniz loves to talk about Affirmed.

"Super horse," he said. "This horse I got, he the best in the world. I had Round Table, too. This horse better. I never scared for my horse. My horse, he got it."

It's always "my" horse. Just like with a manager of a boxer, it is always "we'll beat the other guy. Don't ask why.

"Nobody beat my horse," Alaniz said.

And the Bid?

Alaniz wanted to be fair.

"Bid?" Alaniz said. "A nice horse."

A "nice" horse.

This, of course, is like saying that a three-pound lobster is a "nice" piece of fish.

Alaniz smiled. He had made his point.

Turning over to Affirmed, Alaniz winked and said, "See you, Big Boy."