Throughout his career, Slew o'Gold has seemed to be a colt with enormous promise. But he never lived up to the lofty expectations for him.

Today, at last, he did. After a dramatic stretch duel with the brilliant California invader, Bates Motel, Slew o'Gold won the $231,500 Woodward Stakes by a nose.

It was an exceptional performance. The two horses covered the 1 1/8 miles at Belmont Park in a sensational 1:46 3/5, trouncing the rest of a top-class field by five lengths. It was the kind of effort that was fully expected of Bates Motel, the foremost candidate for the Horse of the Year title. But who would have dreamed that Slew o'Gold was capable of it?

He had flopped as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes, and flopped as the favorite in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, against what was thought to be a weak crop of 3-year-olds. But the son of Seattle Slew somehow retained his charisma, and the 26,675 people at Belmont today made him a surprisingly strong 4-to-1 second choice.

The presence of Angel Cordero Jr. in the saddle may have buoyed the bettors' confidence--and indeed Cordero was a dominant force in the Woodward. He outsmarted Californian Terry Lipham throughout most of the race and outfinished him at the end for his third straight Woodward victory.

Cordero's major contribution, however, came at the start of the race, when he altered Slew o'Gold's customary front-running style.

As Mugatea and Island Whirl duelled for the early lead, Cordero was content to keep Slew o'Gold in the back of the pack. Bates Motel, however, had shown surprising speed and was sitting in perfect position outside the leaders and within easy striking distance.

But when Slew o'Gold moved up outside him on the backstretch, Lipham made no effort to stay abreast of his rival, and let Bates Motel drop back into the midst of heavy traffic.

Having gotten the jump on the 3-to-5 favorite, Slew o'Gold moved up to challenge the leaders on the turn. Then Bates Motel swung to the outside and started to unleash the acceleration that had carried him to five impressive victories in six starts this year. He rushed up alongside Slew o'Gold and looked as if he were going to blow past him.

Even Cordero momentarily thought that he might. "When he moved at the quarter pole," the rider said, "I thought he might win then because that's the way he's beaten everyone else. But I was gaining confidence the closer we got to the finish line. When I was still with him at the eighth pole, I knew I'd win."

There are few riders who can outfinish Cordero in a stretch battle, and Lipham is not one of them. Slew o'Gold held off his challenger throughout the last furlong and reached the wire about an inch in front of him. Sing Sing was five lengths behind in third place and Danebo another five lengths back in fourth. Then came, in order, Island Whirl, Deputy Minister, Silver Supreme, Swing Till Dawn, Singh Tu and Mugatea.

Lipham said after the race, "He didn't turn it on the way he usually does." But he was mistaken. Bates Motel ran his usual race, and it was a superb one. Trainer John Gosden had the proper perspective.

"He ran so wide and to be beaten by only a nose he had to run a great race," Gosden said. "But a great horse beat us today."

Slew o'Gold paid $10, $3.20 and $2.60 as part of an entry with Mugatea. Bates Motel returned $2.60 and $2.40 while Sing Sing, coupled in the betting with Singh Tu, was $3.60 to show.

In the race preceding the Woodward, Tina's Ten, ridden by Richard Migliore, outdueled Masked Barb for a head victory in the $57,900 Astarita for 2-year-old fillies. Upturning was third.