Just three weeks ago, trainer LeRoy Jolley was facing a difficult game of catch up to get Cure the Blues ready for the Kentucky Derby. The colt's 1981 debut had been delayed by a foot injury, and he couldn't afford even one more slight setback.

But after Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, Jolley ought to be breathing easily. Cure the Blues will complete the three-race pre-Derby campaign that Jolley mapped out for him and he figures to do it in a fashion that will cement his status as the Derby favorite.

Cure the Blues started his season by winning a minor seven-furlong race at Hialeah, then lost the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct by a nose. But rarely has a trainer been so buoyed by a defeat. Cure the Blues demonstrated his exceptional talent and competitive spirit as he battled Proud Appeal through a mile in a sensational 1:33 3/5.

That hard race gave the Cure the Blues the seasoning and conditioning that he so badly needed. He wasn't enervated by his duel in the Gotham; instead, Jolley was delighted to see that the colt was full of energy a couple of days later. And now, the trainer said, "He's coming up to the Wood as well as we could hope."

Stanley Hough, the trainer of Proud Appeal, prudently decided to bypass another confrontation with Cure the Blues, and decided to use Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as his final pre-Derby tuneup.

Without Proud Appeal in the field, Cure the Blues won't have to battle fiercely to get the lead, running the first half-mile in 45 seconds as he did in the Gotham. He figures to inherit the early advantage, for none of his five rivals -- Highland Blade, Noble Nashua, Prather's Image, Cut High and Pleasant Colony -- is endowed with such high speed.

As if this weren't enough of an advantage, Cure the Blues also drew the No. 1 post position, which is always an advantage in 1 1/8-mile races at Aqueduct.

Although Cure the Blues seems sure to win the Wood, the performance of Highland Blade may have important implications for the Kentucky Derby. The colt had been considered principally a grass specialist before he won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah. His come-from-behind victory was the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old in Florida all winter.

With characteristic caution, trainer David Whiteley said today, "I just don't know how he'll do. Just because he handled one dirt track doesn't mean he'll be able to handle another. He could win or trail the field."

In fact, Highland Blade probably can't win a race in which Cure the Blues is the lone Speed horse. But if he runs creditably, he could stamp himself as a legitimate Derby contender, as the stretch-runner who will benefit when Cure the Blues gets hooked up in potentially destructive duels for the early lead. And after Saturday he is going to be engaged in plenty of such duels.