As befits a big box-office attraction, Conquistador Cielo has developed a flair for the dramatic.

Although today's Jim Dandy Stakes had been expected to be a boring runaway, the country's best racehorse made it exciting. When the Maryland-based colt Lejoli made a powerful run at Conquistador Cielo on the turn, many in the crowd of 30,549 let out a collective gasp. At the finish, C.C.'s margin of victory was only a length.

But the close finish was just good theater--and a good way to prepare the colt for his next objective, the Travers Stakes on Aug. 21. Jockey Eddie Maple never moved a muscle, even when Lejoli was making his challenge; he gave the impression that he could have blown the field away if he had wanted.

Because Conquistador Cielo hadn't raced for a month, he needed today to get ready for the 1 1/4-mile Travers. Trainer Woody Stephens told Maple before the race, "Just do what you need to do to win, that's all." That's what Maple did.

When an allowance-class colt named Tayfun had the temerity to challenge early, Maple let Conquistador Cielo lope alongside him, running the first half-mile in 46 3/5 seconds and the three-quarters in 1:10 4/5. As Tayfun collapsed--he would finish 32 lengths behind--Lejoli accelerated swiftly. He drew within two lengths on the turn, but Maple glanced over his shoulder and decided there was no need to use his whip. He eased up Conquistador Cielo at the finish, enabling Lejoli to close the gap further, and covered the 1 1/8 miles in an unsensational 1:48 3/5.

"I got close to him and scared him good," said Lejoli's rider, Angel Cordero Jr., who is usually more realistic. But this was as close as anyone has come to Conquistador Cielo during the seven-race winning streak that has established him as the likely horse of the year.

Lejoli was getting a big weight concession today, 128 pounds to 114, and Maple said, "When we get him in the Travers at 126 apiece, it won't be this close."