SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., AUG. 7 -- Horses, like second-string quarterbacks, often acquire an enthusiastic following while they are sitting on the bench. It's easy to look good when you're not putting your reputation on the line against tough competition.

Last year, the most talked-about horse in New York was Ogygian. While he was passing the Triple Crown and waltzing through some soft races, local wise guys thought he would trounce the big-name 3-year-olds when he got the chance. Instead, Ogygian failed miserably.

This year's ballyhooed 3-year-old is Java Gold, who has won three of his four starts this season, running fast but beating nobody. Plenty of New Yorkers have been suggesting for months that he will be able to beat the leaders of his age group, Alysheba and Bet Twice, when he faces them in the $1 million Travers Stakes here later this month.

Is Java Gold indeed the rising star of his generation? Or is he another Ogygian? We'll finally know on Saturday afternoon, when he comes off the sidelines and runs in the prestigious Whitney Handicap. Java Gold will have to be a legitimately top-class horse to beat the outstanding 4-year-old Broad Brush and well-established 3-year-olds like Gone West and Gulch.

Java Gold ran creditably against the country's best 2-year-olds last season. He finished within a length of Bet Twice in their only meeting. But trainer Mack Miller wanted to bypass the rigors of preparing the colt for the Kentucky Derby; he thinks the whole grind is too stressful for a young horse.

"I was trying to figure out how to tell my owner that I didn't want to win in the Derby," Miller said, but he didn't have to worry. Java Gold has one of the last owners in the game who merits the description "sportsman." Paul Mellon of Upperville, Va., doesn't ask for instant success with his horses; he is as patient as his trainer.

Having skipped the Derby and then suffered a virus which ended his chances of running in the Belmont Stakes, Java Gold has had a 3-year-old campaign resembling a vacation. He has raced four times, facing no more than three rivals in any of the starts. He has won three and suffered a nose loss in the other, against a fair-to-middling older horse, Cutlass Reality. At this relatively advanced stage of his career, all he has shown is potential.

He does have two possible advantages in the Whitney, however. He is a fresh horse going against rivals who have endured tough campaigns. And because he has not won any consequential stakes, he gets a significant break in the weights. He carries only 113 pounds, compared with 127 for Broad Brush.

Dick Small, Broad Brush's trainer, admires the finesse with which Miller has brought his colt into the Whitney. "The guy didn't get into the Hall of Fame by being dumb," Small observed.

But even with the weight concession, Java Gold faces a tough test. This is not a case where the backup quarterback is getting his chance against the Green Bay Packers; he's being thrown into the Super Bowl.

Gone West is coming into the Whitney off a 12-length win in the Dwyer Stakes at 1 1/8 miles, today's Whitney distance. Gulch didn't fare well in the Triple Crown series because the races were too long for him, but he, too, is racing at a more suitable distance and he has trained extremely well for the Whitney. He worked five furlongs in a sizzling :57 2/5 this week.

But Broad Brush is the one to beat, even with his 127 pounds. He has certainly earned this assignment, having won 14 of 26 career starts and earned $2.6 million. He has been facing the best and most accomplished horses in America for two years, and it is going to take more than a bench-warmer to beat him.