This winter at Santa Anita, I saw what I thought was the most impressive American racehorse since Spectacular Bid.

I had never even heard his name before the season began, but Bates Motel did the kinds of things in competition that only a great champion can. Because he was doing them in California, though, he attracted no national media attention and little acclaim outside his home state.

But now Bates Motel has come east for a late-season campaign in pursuit of the horse of the year title. When it is over, I believe most people will be attaching the label "superhorse" to his name. He begins his quest in Saturday's $250,000 Monmouth Handicap--an event that is a fascinating handicapping exercise.

Bates Motel is facing two very formidable rivals, Island Whirl and Deputy Minister, who last raced in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Island Whirl led all the way to win that race, with Deputy Minister fourth, 2 3/4 lengths behind. Even so, I am convinced that Island Whirl was not the best horse that day.

Racing on a highly speed-favoring track, he was able to take the early lead without a serious challenge and set a slow pace. While he was saving ground, Deputy Minister tried to accelerate while racing six wide around the final turn. Another stretch-runner, Star Choice, was attempting to rally eight wide.

Under the circumstances, I was not impressed that Island Whirl was able to win by a nose; I was very impressed by the way Deputy Minister rallied. He persuaded me that he is the best horse in the East. But that won't be enough in the Monmouth race.

Bates Motel is a big, late-maturing colt who didn't race as a 2-year-old and didn't show evidence of special talent until late in his 3-year-old season. But as a 4-year-old he has been unbeatable (except for one dismal performance on a muddy track).

Bates Motel has raw speed when his jockey, Terry Lipham, wants to use it. In one early season race this year, he stalked and then overpowered a speedster named Fighting Fit, who routinely runs six furlongs faster than 1:09. Lipham prefers to use the colt's acceleration on the final turn, as he did in the Santa Anita Handicap.

As he entered the final turn in that rich stake, Bates Motel was running ninth in a field of 17 when Lipham swung him to the far outside for clear racing room and--whoosh! Bates Motel went from ninth place to first on the turn and seized command of the race. It was the kind of move that Spectacular Bid would make--or Secretariat.

A minor injury sidelined him after that triumph, but Bates Motel was better than ever when he won a stake at Del Mar by seven lengths earlier this month. Assuming the track is fast, he is ready to win at Monmouth today (with Deputy Minister second, Star Choice third and Island Whirl nowhere). He may even be ready to make racing history.