Cure the Blues had demolished his opposition in every race he had run before today. But it was in defeat that he proved his greatness.

He lost the Gotham Stakes to Proud Appeal by a margin that would have been best measured in millimeters. He only lost, however, after waging a heart-stopping battle down the Aqueduct stretch that was worthy of the great moments of the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry. And he lost after running faster than almost any thoroughbred of modern times has run at his stage of his career: one mile in a sensational 1:33 3/5.

The Gotham demonstrated that Cure the Blues and Proud Appeal tower over all other Kentucky Derby aspirants of their generation. Cure the Blues may well prove to be superior to his conqueror today because he came into the Gotham at such an apparent disadvantage.

Before the race, trainer LeRoy Jolley wasn't exuding the optimism one might expect from the man whose horse had won his six career starts by a total of 43 1/2 lengths. Jolley knew his colt had not done nearly enough to be optimally prepared for his race. He had run only one slow sprint race in Florida and now was shipping north and spotting three pounds to Proud Appeals on his home track where he had scored three sensationally fast stakes victories this year.

When the gate opened for the Gotham, Proud Appeal popped out quickly, but he held a clear lead for only a few strides. Cure the Blues moved abreast of him, in the position where he would remain for the rest of the race.

Jockey Jeffrey Fell was trying to restrain Proud Appeal, and Jacinto Vasquez was dong the same with Cure the Blues, but the two colts are so naturally fast that they whizzed the first half-mile in 45 seconds flat. Behind them, Angel Cordero Jr. was sitting in perfect striking position on Noble Nashua, the presumed stretch-runner in the six-horse field, waiting for the leaders to falter.

But the veteran Cordero couldn't quite believe what was happening in front of him. "Those guys never came back!" he exclaimed. "The longer they went, the faster they went."

Indeed, the two leaders picked up their already quick tempo, speeding the third quarter in 23 4/5 seconds, reaching the six-furlong mark in 1:08 4/5. As they turned into the stretch, Proud Appeal opened an advantage of nearly a half-length and looked for the moment as if he were going to pull away. But Cure the Blues wouldn't let him. With every one of his final strides, he seemed to gain an inch or so on his resolute opponent.

The finish was too close for most of the 23,287 witnesses to call. When Proud Appeal's number went up, he paid $5.80 to win.

The time of the race was just two-fifths of a second slower than the track record, and only one-fifth slower than Secretariat ran over a much faster racing surface in the 1973 Gotham. It astonished even some of the jockeys and trainers who didn't realize just how good these horses are.

"I really don't know what to say," said Stanley Hough, Proud Appeal's trainer. "It was an unbelievable race. I knew they would go fast, but not this fast."

Jolley was happier than he was after Cure the Blues had won his season debut in Florida last week. "I'm sorry he lost," Jolley said, "but he ran a big, big race." After taking over the training of this colt from Maryland's Bernie Bond at the start of the year, he finally knows what he has.

Some skeptics may question the significance of the winning time, but the performance of Noble Nashua clearly illuminates the quality of the horses who beat him.

Nble Nashua had won his last start here by nine lengths, missing the track record by one-fifth of a second and his astute trainer, Jose Martin, had spent a month pointing for the Gotham. The race developed perfectly for him, as he sat in third place behind the dueling leaders.

Yet Noble Nashua finished 8 1/2 lengths behind the top pair. Not many other 3-year-olds figure to get much closer this spring.