Noble Nashua upset the best racehorses in America and won the $400,000 Marlboro Cup today. But the credit went less to the horse than to his jockey, Ruben Hernandez, who made some of the best riders in American look like woeful incompetents.

"Nobody wanted the early lead," Hernandez said, "so I took it." He took it and set such a slow pace for the first half-mile that Noble Nashua would have had to be a bad horse not to win this prestigious race. By the time stretch runners Pleasant Colony and Temperence Hill started to make their moves, the outcome was already decided.

Noble Nashua scored a 3 3/4-length victory over Amber Pass on the muddy Belmont Park racing strip, with Temperence Hill third. Pleasant Colony, attempting to wrap up the horse-of-the-year title, rallied ineffectually for fourth. Fappiano, who disliked either the mud or the 1 1/4-mile distance, was fifth.

The decisive moment in the ninth running of the Marlboro Cup came only seconds after the eight horses had left the gate. Fappiano broke on top, and jockey Angel Cordero Jr. looked for a moment as if he might try to go for the lead. But when he saw Noble Nashua move beside him, Cordero put Fappiano under restraint.

Cash Asmussen, riding speedster Amber Pass, followed his example. That enabled Hernandez to cruise the first half-mile in 24 4/5 seconds and the half in 48 1/5. Noble Nashua had not even been asked to exert himself but his rivals were conceding him a comfortable lead.

The trainers of the other horses were properly distraught when they saw the early fractions. "This is just crazy . . . crazy . . . crazy," said John Campo, whose Pleasant Colony was eight lengths behind after a half-mile. "I can't believe it. I told Jorge Velasquez to watch out for a slow pace. It's crazy."

Unable to resist the temptation to blast Velasquez for the second time this year, Campo added: "(Angel) Cordero will ride him in the Gold Cup."

Cordero guided Pleasant Colony to a victory two weeks ago in the Woodward Stakes, but was committed to ride Fappiano in the Marlboro, prompting Campo to give Velasquez a second opportunity aboard his colt.

"I don't understand this at all," moaned Allen Jerkens, whose speedster Hechizado never got close to Noble Nashua. "You have a come-from-behind horse go to the lead. I can't believe it."

Given this advantage, Noble Nashua was plenty good enough to capitalize on it. Although the 3-year-old had lost to Pleasant Colony in all three of their previous meetings this year, he had won several major stakes and had broken Belmont's track record for one mile in his next-to-last start.

When he turned into the stretch with a 2 1/2-length lead and plenty of energy in reserve, he was able to run the final quarter-mile in 24 4/5 seconds -- just as fast as his opening quarter -- and none of his pursuers could gain on him appreciably.

Noble Nashua covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00 3/5, just three-fifths off the track record. He paid $27.40, $12.60 and $7.80. Amber Pass returned $8.40 and $5.20 and Temperence Hill paid $5 to show.

Although Campo will surely blame his jockey for causing the defeat of the 6-to-5 favorite, the Marlboro Cup exposed the limitations of Pleasant Colony. The colt has a one-dimensional running style: he always breaks slowly and tries to make a decisive move on the final turn.

He is unable to alter this style to overcome unfavorable circumstances (such as he encountered in the Belmont Stakes and today's race). Noble Nashua may not be as gifted but he is a quicker and more tractable horse and those were the qualities that were rewarded today.