When Linkage was retired this week, the announcement merited only a few paragraphs on an inside page of the Daily Racing Form. Nobody was eulogizing him. After all, in an 18-race career spanning three seasons, Linkage won only one stakes races of consequence.

In view of this record, it might seem preposterous to suggest that the 4-year-old colt was one of the most talented American racehorses in recent years. Even so, I will always believe that Linkage could have been a champion, that he should have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

There is no neat correlation between a horse's native ability and his achievements; animals can't control their destinies. No matter how good a horse may be, he needs a trainer who will take proper care of him and his career.

Trainers sometimes modestly disclaim the importance of their contributions, saying that anybody can succeed with a good horse. The case history of Linkage is a refutation of that notion. The colt had classic breeding, speed, stamina and heart. But his aged trainer, Henry Clark, never seemed to have any sense of direction as he guided Linkage's career. As a result, no horse has ever run well so often and accomplished so little.

Linkage's misfortune, perhaps, was to have been bred and owned by Jane duPont Lunger, who had all the money she would ever need. She never put pressure on Clark to win big races and big purse money. Winning a $25,000 race at the duPonts' track, Delaware Park, meant as much to both of them as winning a $100,000 stake elsewhere. The trainer never had to push his horses hard toward some major objective; he never pushed Linkage anywhere.

When the colt won his only two starts as a 2-year-old in impressive fashion, any other trainer would have been thinking ahead to the 3-year-old classics, for a horse with Linkage's pedigree would be worth at least $10 million if he won the Kentucky Derby. Any trainer would have meticulously planned a three- or four-race schedule leading to the Triple Crown events. If a horse raced less, he might be ill-conditioned; if he raced more, he might be past his peak.

But Clark campaigned Linkage that winter with no evident plan, no direction. The colt started six times at the Fair Grounds, in pointless races like the Black Gold Handicap and the LeComte Handicap. Then he went to Keeneland for his first real test, the Blue Grass Stakes, and he showed unequivocally how good he was. Not only did he demolish the field by 5 1/2 lengths, but he ran faster than Spectacular Bid, Alydar and other Blue Grass winners who had gone on to greatness.

The next day, Clark made what may be remembered as the most perverse decision by a trainer in modern times. Having won the most important prep race for the Kentucky Derby, he chose not to run Linkage in the Derby and took him back home to Maryland to await the Preakness. A horse Linkage had trounced in the Blue Grass, Gato del Sol, won at Churchill Downs.

Having missed that golden opportunity to win a classic race, Linkage never won another one. He ran magnificently in the Preakness but lost because of an ill-judged ride by jockey Bill Shoemaker. By then, however, he had to have been weary after a long, hard campaign. But Clark chose to press forward, running him in the Belmont Stakes (which he lost by 22 lengths) and the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth (which he lost by 14), before terminating his 3-year-old campaign.

If Clark learned anything from his mistakes with Linkage in 1982, it wasn't evident this year. Once again, he indulged his habit of running the colt in race after race that didn't mean anything. Linkage won three straight allowance races this summer, but they were "preps" that didn't prepare him for anything. He came into the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga without having run beyond seven furlongs in a full year; he was at a clear disadvantage against tough, seasoned rivals. He finished sixth in the Whitney, then hurt his ankle after running third in the Monmouth Handicap, and was retired to stud.

Other horses with ill-starred racing careers have verified their greatness at stud; Linkage's sire, Hoist the Flag, was one. But this is the only way Linkage will ever get the recognition that is his due. Years from now, when posterity examines his record, no one will ever believe that a colt who managed to win only the Blue Grass Stakes and two obscure stakes at the Fair Grounds was really a great race horse.