Great horses have been emerging in recent years with a frequency that suggests man may have, indeed, succeeded in improving the breed.

Three years ago this fall, Seattle Slew was launching his career. Two years ago, Affirmed and Alydar were beginning their series of memorable duels. Last year, Spectacular Bid was developing into a superstar. Was this the start of a trend, the beginning of a great new era?

The answer to that question is suggested by today's Laurel Futurity at Pimlico. The answer is no. Of the more than 30,000 members of the newest generation of throughbreds, not a single one has proved that he has any exceptional ability.

As a result, a group of animals that would have been second-string allowance horses in recent seasons will get to race for a $188,550 prize this afternoon.

The Futurity won't even decide the 2-year-old championship, as it did when Affirmed and Spectacular Bid won it. Rockhill Native, an unfashionably bred gelding, has virtually clinched the title already.

But he showed his vulnerability when he was upset by Joanie's Chief in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont and was retired for the season to avoid any further embarrassments.

Joanie's Chief may be the favorite at Pimlico today on the basis of that victory, but he still has to prove that it wasn't a fluke. The Champagne was run over a muddy track and since Joanie's Chief had raced without great distinction in his six previous starts on fast tracks, the mud might have accounted for his improvement.

The principal contenders in the Futurity may be a pair of late bloomers, Gold Stage and Plugged Nickle.

Gold Stabe was beaten repeatedly by Rockhill Native earlier in the season, but he seems to be improving now. He won an allowance race at Belmont by five lengths and then captured the Kenneland Breeders' Futurity by 10 lenghts, albiet in unexceptional time.

Plugged Nickle will be the choice of the speed handicappers on the basis of his most recent victory in an allowance race at Aqueduct. He won by nine lengths, covering a mile in 1:35 3/5. His trainer, Tommy Kelly, usually doesn't rush his young horses, and so Plugged Nickle might be just starting to show his true ability.