Racetrakers have an inelegant word for the remarkable horse who made his debut at Santa Anita a week ago. They call him a freak. By this they mean a freak of nature, the sort of thoroughbred who surpasses even the most optimistic dreams of men who own and train horses.

Lemhi Gold is a freak. It might seem ridiculously premature for people in California to suggest, on the basis of one race, that he is the horse to beat in the rich Santa Anita Derby and possibly the Kentucky Derby. But no great horse of recent years -- not Secretariat, not Seattle Slew, not Spectabular Bid -- started his career nearly as brilliantly as this colt. n

Laz Barrera, who has trained two recent Kentucky Derby winners and thus knows what a good horse is, had some clues about Lemhi Gold's ability. A day before Lemhi Gold was scheduled to run, Barrera saddled another first-time starter who won impressively, and when jockey Laffit Pincay dismounted, he told the trainer that this might be a Derby horse.

Barrera shook his head. "Wait 'ti tomorrow," he whispered. "I have an even better one for you."

The next day was the day of the $400,000 Santa Anita Handicap, with a crowd of 66,560, which bet a record $9.2 million. On the biggest afternoon in California racing history, a 3-year-old maiden stole the show.

When the gate opened for the mile race, Lemhi Gold hardly looked like a potential champion. In fact, he just stood there for a split second. During the early stages of the race, he was trailing the field and running awkwardly; Pincay said he was reacting to being hit in the face with dirt clods for the first time.

As he approached the final turn, however, Lemhi Gold shifted gears suddenly, swooped around the field and took the lead. It is not uncommon for a horse who breaks slowly to rush into contention in midrace, but Lemhi Gold wasn't finished with his move. He had only begun. He shifted into high gear in the stretch, drawing away from his nearest pursuer by 14 lengths, covering the last quarter-mile in a sensational 24 3/5 seconds.

For students of speed handicapping, the time of the race verified just how exceptional this performance was. Lemhi Gold ran a mile in 1:35 3/5.On the same afternoon, older $50,000 claiming horses covered the same distance in 1:35 4/5. Lemhi Gold's time translates into a figure that would be respectable for a seasoned colt like Lord Avie, the champion of his generation, and is virtually unheard-of for a first-time starter.

There have, of course, been many horses who ran sensationally in the first starts of their careers but never lived up to their initial promise, but these flashes are usually front-runners who ultimately prove to be lacking in versatility or stamina.

Lemhi Gold demonstrated, in his first start, that he can go a distance and that he can come from far behind. He has virtually every ingredient necessary for a champion racehorse.

He has the pedigree -- he is a son of Vaguely Noble, who has already sired great classic winners like Dahlia and Exceller. More important, his trainer is probably the most gifted member of his profession in America. Berrera will extract every bit of potential from Lemhi Gold. And the extent of that potential may be unimaginable.