ELMONT, N.Y., SEPT. 5 -- A year ago, Polish Navy looked as if would be one of the best horses of his generation. Today, the 3-year-old finally lived up to those expectations.

He won the $595,000 Woodward Stakes, the first leg of New York's "fall championship series," by three-quarters of a length over Gulch. Bet Twice, the favorite and the top money-winner of his age group, was a soundly beaten sixth.

Today's result would hardly have been a surprise to anyone who remembered Polish Navy from the fall of 1986. He looked brilliant winning his first four starts, including the Champagne Stakes, where he defeated Bet Twice decisively.

But after he had surgery during the winter to remove bone chips from his knee, Polish Navy didn't look like the same horse. He had only one minor stakes victory, and he had been soundly beaten in the Travers against many of the same horses in the Woodward field.

But today the old Polish Navy reappeared. He was abetted, too, by good racing luck and by the fact that many of his rivals, notably Bet Twice, have been campaigned hard.

There wasn't a great deal of speed in the nine-horse Woodward field, so Gone West sped to the front while Randy Romero put Polish Navy in perfect position outside him, just a length or so behind. Gone West has never been very effective beyond a mile, and Polish Navy took over when the front-runners faded.

Gone West set an honest pace, covering the first quarter-mile in 23 2/5 seconds and the half in :46 flat, then accelerated to hit the six-furlong mark in 1:09 1/5. Then he weakened, and Polish Navy inherited the lead.

Craig Perret was already starting to whip Bet Twice, the Belmont Stakes winner, but was getting no response. "I spent the whole race trying to get him in a striking position," Perret said, "and when I got him in that zone he just didn't fire."

Polish Navy had command of the race turning for home. "At around the three-sixteenths pole, I heard a couple of them coming," Romero said. Gulch was making his move on the outside, and the tough 5-year-old Creme Fraiche was moving on the inside.

Gulch momentarily looked as if he would challenge, but he flattened out in the final sixteenth of a mile. He saved second place over Creme Fraiche, who finished another neck behind. Cryptoclearance was fourth and Bordeaux Bob fifth, followed by Bet Twice, Gone West, Proud Debonair and Wind Chill.

Polish Navy covered the 1 1/8 miles in a good 1:47 over a fast track, and paid $12.80. He earned $357,000 for owner Ogden Phipps.

The Woodward result, following Java Gold's victory in the Travers, suggests that the Triple Crown series has taken a toll on all its contestants and that the fresh, late-blooming 3-year-olds now have the edge.