The owner and trainer of Spectacular Bid have found the right kind of race for their horse on Saturday.

Bid will be running in the $200,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park under optimal weights (126 pounds), at his optimal distance (1 1/4 miles) against only one or two challengers. When Winter's Tale was scratched from the race today, only Temperence Hill and Dr. Patches were left as possible starters. And both their trainers were uncertain about running them.

Two weeks ago, owner Harry Meyerhoff and trainer Bud Delp had refused to enter Bid in the Marlboro Cup, because his 136-pound weight assignment created some small risk that he could lose. This was part of their whole game plan for Spectacular Bid's 4-year-old campaign. They do not want to expose him to any chancy situations.

It is tempting to compare this strategy to the sporting way in which champions of the past have been managed. Dr. Fager shouldered 139 pounds to demonstrate his weight-carrying ability. Buckpasser's owner wanted to send him to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe to take on the best horses in Europe. Nashua never ducked a challenged.

But such comparisons are unfair, because the economics of the game have changed so dramatically since these horses ran.

When Citation became the first horse to earn $1 million in purse money, no horse had ever been syndicated at stud for that sum. When Affirmed became the first horse to earn $2 million, he was worth $14 million at stud. Earlier this year, Spectacular Bid was syndicated for $22 million. The value of thoroughbred bloodstock will continue to skyrocket as long as investors around the world continue to buy highclass horses as hedges against inflation.

For the owner of a horse like Spectacular Bid, the function of racing is simply to establish his credentials for a stud career. Once a horse had made his reputation, there is little to gain by exposing him to risks -- and a lot to lose. Even if Meyerhoff were the world's most venturesome sportsman, he still has to think about the interest of the people who paid $550,000 for each share of Spectacular Bid and want to see that investment safeguarded.

Since the bloodstock boom began in the early 1970s, all the best American horses -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid -- have been campaigned cautiously and unimaginatively. And the management of these horses has been bold compared with the usual European style.

Alleged, the last great European horse, ran 10 times in a three-year career. Neither he nor any other top horses there run in handicaps, which are considered much too risky. "We have a great supply of cotton in Europe in which to wrap our best horses," lamented racing commentator Michael O'Hehir.

The boom in the thoroughbred breeding business has had very harmful effects on the racing business. The sport needs stars and great confrontations, but gets too few of them. Belmont Park's three-race fall championship series should produce high drama. But the Marlboro Cup was an uninspiring event, most notable for Bid's defection. And now the Woodward has turned into an embarrassment.

Winter's Tale, the five-length winner of the Marlboro, would have given Spectacular Bid a run for the money, but he developed a minor leg ailment after a swift workout earlier this week. "He has a chip on the radius, which is on the forearm of the left foreleg," trainer Mack Miller said this afternoon. "He couldn't stand the trauma of running on it. He's through for the year."

Before Miller's announcement, trainer Joe Cantey had said he would not run Temperence Hill. Jan Nerud had decided to scratch Dr. Patches. Now they are both pondering.

"I'm going to re-evaluate my position," Nerud said.

"It's certainly going to keep me up all night thinking about what to do," Cantey said.

But Harry Meyerhoff and Bud Delp won't be lying awake and worrying about anything tonight. And that's just the way they want it.