The Woodward Stakes was the best horse race of the year. People who were at Belmont Park are still talking about the way Slew o' Gold and Bates Motel battled head and head all the way down the stretch. Those fans are savoring the prospect of a rematch between the two colts in the Marlboro Cup later this month.

Unfortunately, not many other people got to see the Woodward. Even though it was a genuine championship-caliber event, none of the television networks covered it. Nor will the networks cover the Marlboro Cup, which has been relegated to ESPN.

Why? Are the networks wrongly ignoring racing, which bills itself as the country's No. 1 spectator sport? Or has the sport failed to market itself properly to television? Plenty of worried people within the industry are asking those questions, and the answers aren't easy ones.

There is, of course, one overriding issue that governs the networks' view of racing, and everything else: ratings. Jack Landry, the Philip Morris executive who supervises his company's sponsorship of the Marlboro Cup, understands this fact of life very well.

"The problem," Landry said, "is that horse racing, other than the Kentucky Derby, will always get fairly low ratings nationally. There are many states where parimutuel wagering is not legal and people don't know a horse from third base. So racing is not that attractive to advertisers, and it doesn't provide as much revenue for the networks as junk sports do."

Other economic factors are at work, too. The networks say that the logistics of covering a race are so expensive that it doesn't pay to give a race anything less than full-scale treatment, say, 10 minutes on "Wide World of Sports." It's all or nothing. So TV may take an unexceptional race like the Budweiser Million, hype it like the Second Coming and devote an hour telecast to it, then totally ignore a superior event like the Woodward.

Of course, the ultimate in hype is the Kentucky Derby. Even if it happens to attract an ordinary group of horses (as in the last two years), television will still treat it as if it is America's one true championship race. "All the networks understand is the Triple Crown," said Tom Aronson of the American Horse Council. "What they don't understand is that in racing the championship events can change every year."

The New York Racing Association tried to promote the Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup as a definitive "fall championship series," but television's enthusiasm for that concept has cooled. Too often the contenders in these big races would try to duck each other. And in the 1980 Woodward, nobody at all showed up to run against Spectacular Bid, producing a walkover.

"That was one of the great disasters," Aronson said. "It's never left the minds of the people in TV. They say: 'How can you expect us to take a chance on racing?' "

Television's enthusiasm for the fall races at Belmont has probably diminished further this year. Because of a late-afternoon football commitment on Sept. 24, CBS wanted to televise the Marlboro Cup from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., having the feature run as the fourth or fifth race on the Belmont card. Landry, representing the Marlboro people, refused. "If you allow the networks to jack you around like a junk sport, you'll wind up a junk sport," he said.

To some people in both racing and television, that statement epitomized the thoroughbred industry's shortsightedness in dealing with the networks. (After all, the National Football League did not become a junk sport by agreeing to telecast Monday night games at 9 p.m. to suit television.)

If the fall championship series has been a TV flop, an even greater embarrassment may be on the horizon. The Breeders Cup races, the one-day extravaganza of championship events with purses as high as $4 million, will be run for the first time in November 1984. This concept was supposed to be racing's answer to the Super Bowl, a great television spectacular. But evidently no one connected with the cup asked anyone in the TV industry how these races could best be staged.

The Breeders Cup races will be run on a Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park--roughly from 4 to 9 p.m. Eastern time. Would television give them significant coverage?

"You've got to be kidding!" one producer exclaimed.

"The racing industry has a mess on its hands," concluded Richard Goldstein, a vice president at CBS. But unlike most people within the sport, Goldstein has a possible solution for its problems.

Goldstein is a racing enthusiast and a horse owner; until recently he was the manager of a Philadelphia TV station that won an Eclipse Award for its racing coverage.

"Television," he said, "doesn't understand racing. If racing is going to make the grade, it's going to have to sell its product. Tennis and golf sold themselves to television as major events; nobody sold the Woodward as an event.

"What racing needs is a national office, based in New York, staffed by people knowledgeable about TV and sports, to represent the whole industry."

Goldstein's idea is that such an office would sell a whole racing package to television; it would try to insure that TV was covering the best races, and that tracks were doing their best to accommodate TV.

"In the world of sports," Goldstein said, "you live and die by television. Racing doesn't understand that, and that's why they're losing ground to other sports. This is a major-league sport that's being promoted in a minor-league fashion."