It is an annual ritual for racing fans to deplore the quality of the year's Derby-age colts. But only the most die-hard negativist could knock the 3-year-old crop of 1982.

The colts who competed in the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah today were considered to be third-stringers among the 3-year-old contingent in Florida. And yet the performance by Royal Roberto was good enough to stamp him as a legitimate, high-class Kentucky Derby candidate.

Making only the fifth start of his career, Royal Roberto rallied strongly through the stretch to win the $65,590 event by 1 1/2 lengths over New Discovery. He covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 2/5, excellent time that verifies he didn't win this race by default.

Royal Roberto's victory did tarnish the reputation of the 2-to-5 favorite, Victorian Line, who came into the race with three straight stakes victories. The former $25,000 claimer demonstrated that he doesn't quite belong in such fast company.

Victorian Line stumbled at the start but got into high gear quickly. "I tried to slow him down," jockey Alfredo Smith Jr. said, but when Reinvested challenged him, he responded almost too gamely. The two colts battled through three-quarters of a mile in a swift 1:10 2/5. Then Royal Roberto started accelerating.

Victorian Line finished third, two lengths back of New Discovery.

"We were 10 or 12 lengths off the lead down the backside," jockey Jeffrey Fell said. "That's his style of running. The early fractions helped set the race up for him. He's a one-run horse and finished very strongly."

After Royal Roberto had made his powerful move on the turn, four-wide, and drawn off to his impressive victory, both Fell and trainer Jim Iselin could entertain optimistic visions of the future.

"He's still learning how to run," Fell said. "He's coming up to the classic races in good shape."

Iselin said, "We plan to take the Florida road to the Derby," but he has double reason to be optimistic. He won the Everglades after scratching Crafty Prospector, who had even better credentials than Royal Roberto.