For the first time since Seattle Slew did it in 1977, a 3-year-old will go into the Kentucky Derby with an undefeated record.

Air Forbes Won earned that distinction when he captured the Wood Memorial Stakes today by a neck over Shimatoree. But it was the only distinguishing feature of his performance at Aqueduct.

To score his fourth straight victory, Air Forbes Won had to struggle to catch a formerly fainthearted speedster. The colts behind him were a mediocre group. And his winning time, 1:51 for 1 1/8 miles, was more appropriate for a claiming horse than a Kentucky Derby candidate.

The crowd of 32,213 had no difficulty making Air Forbes Won the 3-to-5 favorite. He already had trounced his principal rival, Shimatoree, at a shorter distance, and that Maryland-based colt did not look as if he would be suited by the Wood route. Still, there was no other credible competition in the field. The third choice in the betting, Laser Light, had lost his last start by 20 lengths.

So Air Forbes Won's jockey Angel Cordero Jr., was most concerned about keeping Shimatoree within his sights. When the speedster opened an early lead, as expected, Air Forbes Won sat about two lengths behind him, within easy striking distance.

Shimatoree set an honest pace, going a half mile in 47 2/5, three-quarters of a mile in 1:11 3/5. "They said he couldn't rate," jockey Jeffrey Fell remarked, "but he rated for me. He really settled down for me on the backstretch."

As the leader approached the final turn, Cordero made his move, and probably expected Air Forbes Won to fly past Shimatoree just as he had in the Gotham Stakes two weeks ago. But Shimatoree wasn't giving up today. With an eighth of a mile to go, he was holding off Air Forbes Won. "I felt a lump in my throat down the stretch," Cordero said. "That other horse wouldn't quit." But in the final strides, Air Forbes Won overtook his rival by a neck. Laser Light rallied to finish third, another 2 1/4 lengths behind.

Air Forbes Won paid $3.20, $2.60 and $2.40. Shimatoree returned $3.80 and $3.40 and Laser Light paid $3.40 to show.

Frank LaBoccetta, the trainer of Air Forbes Won, acknowledged that the race was slow. But under the windy conditions, he said, "It was difficult to evaluate the race; sprints were fast and routes were slow today." In his jubilation, he wasn't much concerned about the time.

"He deserves to be one of the main choices in Kentucky," LaBoccetta said. "I think I have a damned good horse and you can't fault his record. Right now the thing on my mind is to get the horse to Kentucky as soon as possible so he can get acclimated."

LaBoccetta can certainly cite some precedents on his behalf. The Wood Memorial has been the most meaningful prep race for the Kentucky Derby in recent years; four of its last seven winners have gone on to capture the Derby including Air Forbes Won's sire, Bold Forbes. The last unbeaten horse to go to the Derby, Seattle Slew, left Churchill Downs covered with glory.

But both speed handicappers and students of class would question how much these precedents matter. Air Forbes Won's time today was much slower than any of the last seven runnings of the Wood. Several of the horses who finished close behind him had been soundly trounced in Florida by Timely Writer, the favorite for the Derby.