On the Saturday before the 1974 Kentucky Derby, trainer Woody Stephens sent out Cannonade to score a victory at Churchill Downs that foreshadowed his triumph in America's greatest race. Today he had reason to hope that history is about to repeat itself.

Stephens' colt Caveat, a son of Cannonade, established himself as a legitimate Derby contender by winning the one-mile Derby Trial Stakes in a photo finish over Total Departure and Pax In Bello. If neither his time nor his margin of victory was especially impressive, his style was. Caveat rallied from last place in the field of 14 and looked very much like a horse who will relish the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance.

Until today, Caveat's most notable credential was the fact that the Hall-of-Famer Stephens was training him. He never had won a stakes, not even against other Maryland-breds at Laurel last fall. He was soundly beaten by Sunny's Halo in his last start, the Arkansas Derby. But Stephens kept pointing the colt for the Kentucky Derby, and today Caveat showed that his confidence was fully justified.

Longshot Coax Me Matt set the early pace in the Trial, while trainer Wayne Lukas' speedball Total Departure stalked him. On the turn, Total Departure drew abreast of the leader while Pax In Bello made a strong move outside them. Caveat still wasn't close, and he was in trouble.

"I was in behind horses with really nowhere to go," jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. said. "Mr. Stephens told me the horse prefers to run outside, but I didn't want to go around because there were too many horses."

When the field fanned out turning into the stretch, Caveat finally found running room inside his more highly regarded stablemate, Chumming. In midstretch he seemed hopelessly far behind, but he accelerated powerfully in that last furlong and caught Total Departure in the final stride, winning by a head. Pax In Bello was another neck behind.

Longshot Le Cou Cou came in fourth; Chumming was a distant fifth. Maryland-based Dixieland Band, ridden by Bill Passmore, finished sixth. Then came Luv A Libra, Hail To Rome, Coax Me Matt, Krafty K., Derby Double, Saverton, Atlantis and Asked To Run.

Caveat covered the mile in 1:37 4/5, time that was somewhat difficult to evaluate because the track was muddy and a strong wind was blowing down the backstretch. But half an hour earlier, a rather nondescript group of allowance-class fillies had covered the same distance in 1:39 2/5, so the time of the Trial was certainly not sensational.

The outcome suggested strongly that Total Departure and Pax In Bello aren't going to be strong contenders at 1 1/4 miles, and that Chumming doesn't figure to be a contender at all.

The colt who looked good in the light of the Trial was Sunny's Halo. He had won the Arkansas Derby with consummate ease in fast time, but all the skeptics asked: Whom did he beat? Now it seems a bit more meaningful that he beat Caveat, who is owned by August Belmont of Easton, Md., and was bred by Columbia builder James Ryan.

Still, Stephens would not exchange Caveat's chances with Sunny's Halo or anybody else. He learned this spring how the colt likes to run: "He loves to drop back. I think he laid too close last year." And now he is reaching peak form at the optimal point of his career. Just like Cannonade.