Racing fans still look back with awe on the 3-year-old crop of 1957, when colts such as Bold Ruler, Round Table and Gallant Man wrote a great chapter in the sport's history, then went to stud and altered the nature of the species.

We remember fondly the other vintage years for thoroughbreds: 1963, 1973, 1978. But the appreciation of exceptional crops of horses always comes in retrospect. It is a springtime ritual for race track cognoscenti to deplore the quality of the Kentucky Derby candidates. Even in 1956, reputable turf writers were knocking their 3-year-olds.

Rather than wait for the verdict of history, I would like to venture an opinion about 1982 that obviously is premature and admittedly is shared by no one else. I think this will be one of the great racing years of my lifetime. The current 3-year-old crop may be one of the deepest and most talented in history.

This would have been hard to guess even a couple months ago, because the 2-year-old competition in 1981 was decidedly lackluster. Deputy Minister, voted the champion of his age group, is a mediocre animal who exposed his limitations with a 10-length loss in a minor stakes race recently. But his generation is full of late bloomers who just now are beginning to display their ability.

Star Gallant is the most notable of them; he has the potential to be the dominant racehorse of the year, even against such good competition. Undefeated in three starts, he is reminscent of Seattle Slew, for he has the kind of raw speed that enables him to take control of a race and destroy his opposition in a quarter-mile or so. When he made his 3-year-old debut in an allowance race here this week, jockey Sandy Hawley restrained him for a quarter-mile; then Star Gallant ran the next quarter in an incredible 21 3/5 seconds and the race was over.

Of course, many horses show brilliant speed early in their careers and prove to be nothing more than sprinters. Star Gallant still has to demonstrate that he has the capability to go a distance, that his speed can be harnessed and used when his jockey wishes, as Slew's could. He will have the opportunity to answer most of the questions about him in the Flamingo Stakes on March 6.

Aloma's Ruler, who has looked impressive winning four straight sprints, hasn't proved that he can go a distance either, but he already has shown that he possesses the most useful of equine traits: controllable speed. In the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes here, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. was able to take him off the lead and move when he wanted, and he won in the impressive time of 1:22 1/5. It's not often that 3-year-olds are running so fast at such an early stage of their careers. Aloma's Ruler will get his first chance to run 1 1/16 miles in Wednesday's Marion County Stakes.

While Star Gallant and Aloma's Ruler are precocious colts who showed talent from the first moments of their career, Royal Roberto is the type who figures to get better with age. He is like last year's Derby winner, Pleasant Colony: a big, long-striding colt who needs time to get into gear but will finish powerfully at longer distances. He did just that Saturday when he ran 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Everglades Stakes, and won going away in 1:48 4/5. Royal Roberto is scheduled to make his next start in the Flamingo.

Other big guns haven't even fired yet this winter. D'Accord won three straight races, by a total of 34 lengths, at the end of last season and is being prepared to make his 3-year-old debut soon. Timely Writer won the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont by nearly five lengths and probably deserved the Eclipse Award for that effort; he, too, is near his first 1982 start.

And these are only the Eastern 3-year-olds. Racing people on the West Coast think their crop of Derby-age colts is an exceptional one, too, and there is evidence to support this viewpoint. Last year one of the better New York 2-year-olds, Laser Light, went to California for the Hollywood Futurity and was trounced by 20 lengths. The winner of that race, Stalwart, is considered an especially top prospect.

Not only will the horses make this an extraordinarily interesting year of 3-year-old racing, but the cast of characters surrounding them is an intriguing one. Star Gallant is the first important Triple Crown candidate owned by Arab interests. Timely Writer is owned by two butchers from Boston and trained by a man better known for scoring with longshots in cheap claiming races than for handling classic winners. D'Accord is being managed by his wealthy owner, Bert Firestone, who evidently felt he could do a better job training than two-time Kentucky Derby winner Le Roy Jolley.

It's going to be quite a year. Maybe even a year like 1957.