Almost as soon as he put the colt into training as a 2-year-old, trainer Lenny Imperio suspected that he had on his hands what race trackers label a "freak"--an animal with tremendous precocity and unimaginable potential.

After the colt, Star Gallant, won two minor races at Aqueduct in December, most of the New York racing community began to share Imperio's assessment. And today many of the people who watched an unimportant allowance race at Hialeah would concur with the opinion that Star Gallant may be the most talented Derby-age racehorse in America.

The event was, on paper, an utterly routine one, for 3-year-olds who had not won three races in their careers. But it drew an extraordinarily tough field that included the brilliantly fast sprinter Rex's Profile and Conquistador Cielo, a highly regarded stakes winner from last season. What Star Gallant did to them suggested that the big-name 3-year-olds in Florida had better watch out.

Rex's Profile sprinted to an early lead, while jockey Sandy Hawley tried to follow Imperio's instructions and restrain Star Gallant. He managed to do so for a quarter-mile, but the colt accelerated through the second quarter in an extraordinary 21 3/5 seconds. Rex's Profile was practically staggering after covering the half in 44 3/5.

Cut Away, another tough allowance horse, rushed up along the rail as if he were going to benefit from the leaders' speed duel. But Star Gallant brushed him off and cruised to a four-length victory, covering seven-eighths of a mile in 1:23. Rex's Profile held on for third; Conquistador Cielo never got into contention and finished fourth.

This performance was no more dazzling than the other things Star Gallant has done in his brief career. Before he ever had run he had worked five-eighths of a mile in a remarkable 57 seconds flat. "He was different from any horse I had," Imperio said. "We decided to go slow with him. In this game, a trainer has to be cool, very cool, if he wants to go for the big one.

"Finally," he said, "I couldn't hold him any longer." Star Gallant made his competitive debut in a maiden race at Aqueduct and won it by six lengths. Two weeks later he was entered in the Alsab Stakes, where he gave a performance that stunned everyone who witnessed it.

When the gate opened, jockey Constantino Hernandez's foot slipped out of the iron; he had to grab hold of Star Gallant's neck to avoid falling off. Hernandez wasn't able to get his foot back in the stirrup until he had gone an eighth of a mile, and such a mishap would have knocked just about any horse out of contention. But not Star Gallant. He zoomed around the field and won comfortably in sensational time.

"This is the sort of horse who comes along only once in awhile--or once in a lifetime," Imperio said.

Does Star Gallant have the ability to be another Spectacular Bid or Secretariat? "I think so," the trainer said.

Of course, he has a long, long way to go with a colt who has raced only three times, who never has won beyond seven furlongs, who never has won a major stake or beaten a top-class rival. But the potential obviously is there.