There is not a bit of doubt left about the identity of the best racehorse in America.

Bates Motel established his superiority when he won today's $542,350 Santa Anita Handicap in a manner that evoked memories of the great champions who have won the West's richest and most celebrated race.

Midway around the stretch turn, Bates Motel was ninth in the 17-horse field, and jockey Terry Lipham had just asked him to run. An eighth of a mile later, as he turned into the stretch, he had already surged to take a commanding lead. He went on to score a 2 1/2-length victory over It's The One and Wavering Monarch, and covered the mile and one-quarter in an excellent 1:58 4/5.

Until two weeks ago, Bates Motel had never ever won a consequential stakes race, but this oversight was due more to his biology than any lack of ability. "He's such a big horse," trainer John Gosden said, "that he needed time to develop." Indeed, at 17 hands and 1,400 pounds, he is the equine equivalent of a Boston Celtics center.

But this winter at Santa Anita, his talent finally began to show. He demonstrated that he could display high speed when needed. But his best game was unleashing one big burst of speed on the turn--the way Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony used to--and in that fashion he won the $200,000 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 20.

The crowd of 66,007 was still dubious about his credentials; they made a much-ballyhooed invader from France the 2-to-1 favorite, with Bates Motel 7 to 2. And for a while the bettors looked right. While The Wonder secured a good position within striking distance of the leaders, Bates Motel found himself in the midst of heavy traffic, running wide around the first turn.

But midway on the backstretch, Lipham finally got where he wanted: in the clear, on the outside. He waited until after one of his principal rivals, Wavering Monarch, had started to make what briefly looked like a winning move at the leaders. But Lipham was in no hurry. "I felt down the backstretch that I had the race won," the jockey said. "I had a lot of horse and I knew the kind of move this horse can make. He can run by them like they're tied down."

Lipham was right. As soon as he put the big horse in gear, there was no doubt about the outcome of the Big 'Cap. He flew past The Wonder, flew past Wavering Monarch and then secured his place in history for the Westerners who think the Santa Anita Handicap may be America's greatest race.

If Bates Motel has thoroughly convinced the locals, Easterners will probably remain dubious--as they are of any horse who makes his reputation in California. For a while, they won't have a chance to judge him; Gosden said he plans to give the colt a short rest and then point for a pair of big-money races at Hollywood Park this summer.

But with his running style, Bates Motel is a horse made for Belmont Park, and the top handicap horses in the East had better watch out for him.