There is an old (and usually incorrect) race track cliche that says mud is the great equalizer. But that seems the only explanation for a result which otherwise seems inexplicable: Willow Hour's stunning victory in the Travers Stakes today.

The 24-to-1 shot, who had never given indications that he belonged in top-class company, scored a dramatic photo-finish triumph over Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony. Some of the most accomplished 3-year-olds in America were behind them.

The rain that started falling early this morning turned the normally resilient Saratoga track into a boglike surface that was totally alien to most of the horses in the field. Pleasant Colony had never once competed on any kind of an off track. Neither had his most highly regarded rivals, Five Star Flight and Lord Avie.

Willow Hour had once won in the slop, but even so it was hard to make a case for a colt who had been extremely lucky to win a slow prep race for the Travers two weeks ago. But in the mud today he was a different horse.

The colt broke alertly from his inside post position, but outside him Pleasant Colony's stablemate Prince Fortune surged to the lead, serving his assigned role of pacesetter. Jockey Eddie Maple knew that was one rival he didn't have to worry about, so he practically stood in the saddle and restrained Willow Hour behind him. The leader went three-quarters of a mile in a quick 1:112/5 while Maple waited patiently for his inevitable collapse.

When Prince Fortune gave up, Willow Hour blew past him and momentarily opened a clear lead. Five Star Flight tried to follow him, but floundered in the slop. Maple waited for the stretch-runners to make their moves. "I figured everybody would be taking a shot somewhere," he said.

In fact, it was only Pleasant Colony who took a shot. His new jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., had the colt closer to the leaders than usual. As he entered the final turn, he unleashed the powerful acceleration that had carried him to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

He drew abreast of Willow Hour, and the 39,146 spectators at Saratoga might reasonably have assumed that the result was a foregone conclusion. It was going to be a great triumph for trainer John Campo, who had brought Pleasant Colony into this demanding 11/4-mile event after a 10-week absence from competition.

But Pleasant Colony could never get by. As Maple kept slashing with his whip, Willow Hour fought back through the long stretch run and held off his challenger by a head at the finish.

Lord Avie, who had trailed by more than 25 lengths, rallied to finish third, 13/4 lengths behind Pleasant Colony. Noble Nashua was fourth and Five Star Flight a badly beaten fifth.

Willow Hour returned $50.20, $13.20 and $5.20. Pleasant Colony paid $4 and $2.80 and Lord Avie returned $3.40 to show.

The winner was clocked in 2:034/5, which was unimpressive even under the muddy conditions. The time suggested that Willow Hour had not run a sharply improved race, but rather that the other horses had come down to his level. Mud was the equalizer.

Most of the jockeys thought so. "The slop bothered him a little," Cordero said, "so much that I used seven pairs of goggles. That's how muddy the track was. I couldn't see for an eighth of a mile."

"The track hurt us," said Five Star Flight's rider, Craig Perret. "He wore down all his bandages to the bone. I'd like to get these guys again on a fast track."

Everybody would like to get Willow Hour on a fast track. He won't be accepted as a legitimate racehorse until he duplicates his performance today when the sun is shining.