After scoring his third straight stakes victory in the Marlboro Cup, Java Gold is being hailed widely as the best 3-year-old in America and the probable horse of the year.

The Daily Racing Form described his winning streak as "outstanding . . . superb . . . devastating" and suggested that Java Gold is the best 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid.

That assessment is preposterous -- or, at the very least, premature. Java Gold has gained his lofty reputation by beating unexceptional rivals in unexceptional times.

The colt does have a powerful kick in the stretch, and it is quite possible that he is capable of better performances than he has shown. But he is being handled in such a craven fashion by trainer Mack Miller and owner Paul Mellon that I don't want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I hate Java Gold and the management strategy that he represents.

Java Gold was just a cut below the country's best 2-year-olds last season, but Miller and Mellon chose not to point him for the Kentucky Derby. Their rationale for the decision was that the Derby comes too early in the year, that it is too taxing for a 3-year-old. But the fact remains that the Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown series has been the most definitive test of greatness in American racing. If a horse is going to be considered in the class of Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Affirmed or Secretariat, he ought to pass the same tests they did.

The people who take an anti-Derby stance are invariably wealthy, patrician owners and the men who train for them. They can afford to reject the Derby's carnival atmosphere in favor of more high-toned New York races like the Belmont Stakes or the Jockey Club Gold Cup. For Java Gold, the snobbism of Mellon and Miller paid great dividends.

While all of the country's other 3-year-olds were knocking themselves out in an extraordinarily tough Triple Crown series, Java Gold was taking it easy. A virus kept him out of the Belmont, too, so he didn't have to run in a meaningful race until August -- by which time the rest of the 3-year-olds were exhausted. A fresh horse wouldn't have to run exceptionally well to beat them. And Java Gold hasn't.

He scored his first important victory in the Whitney Handicap with the aid of a perfect ground-saving trip, winning by three-quarters of a length over Gulch. Yes, the same Gulch who finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, fourth in the Preakness and a distant third in the Belmont Stakes.

Then he won the Travers Stakes, which was ruined as a meaningful test by the extremely sloppy track conditions. Alysheba, the favorite, clearly couldn't handle the mud. Java Gold won by two lengths over Cryptoclearance -- the same Cryptoclearance who was beaten in all three Triple Crown events as well as two subsequent races against lesser competition.

When Java Gold won the Marlboro Cup Sunday, his opposition was pitiful. He scored by two lengths over Nostalgia's Star, who had lost his previous eight starts in California. The ubiquitous Gulch was only three lengths behind the winner.

If Alysheba and Java Gold had switched racing schedules this year, and a fresh Alysheba were now running against small fields of tired rivals, he would surely be annihilating them and getting lavish praise as the country's best 3-year-old. But if Java Gold had been thrown into the crucible of Triple Crown competition, it is far less certain he would have distinguished himself.

The one exceptional quality Java Gold has displayed in his victories this summer is the strength of his kick. He won the Marlboro Cup by running the final quarter mile in 23 1/5 seconds. Few horses since Secretariat have finished classic races so strongly, and it would be interesting to see what Java Gold could accomplish against tougher competition. Unfortunately, racing fans may never get to find out.

Java Gold will race only one more time this year, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he will face the same sort of noncompetition that he met in the Marlboro. He will skip the Breeders' Cup, for the most opportunistic of reasons. Miller can't claim (as other trainers could) that his horse has had too tough a campaign already. Rather, he knows Java Gold will probably lock up the Eclipse Award after beating patsies in New York one more time.

The logical extension of this protectiveness would be to retire Java Gold from racing, and Miller has hinted Mellon might do just that. It's a shame Java Gold's owner can't be more of a sportsman.