INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- The Breeders' Cup Classic is only three years old, but it has already developed its own tradition: an implausible long shot will upset the country's best and most famous horses.

It would have been hard for a handicapper to make any persuasive case for Wild Again in 1984, Proud Truth in 1985 or Skywalker in 1986. Indeed, the subsequent records of these winners verify how fluky their Breeders' Cup triumphs were; none of them went on to win another race of major importance.

So why did they win? The horses who captured the world's richest race had something in common. They were late-blooming, lightly raced horses who had the advantage of being fresh and sharp for the Classic. The champions they beat (Slew o' Gold in 1984, Chief's Crown in 1985, Turkoman in 1986) had all gone through long, hard campaigns and were presumably worn out by November.

In view of these precedents, a bettor should look with skepticism at Ferdinand and Alysheba, the standout favorites for the fourth Breeders' Cup Classic.

The challenger who has the force of history on his side is the Canadian colt, Afleet. And he has plenty of handicapping merit, too.

Ferdinand and Alysheba, the winners of the last two Kentucky Derbies, are both admirable, tough racehorses. But Alysheba, in particular, has had a long, tough campaign; the Classic will be his ninth Grade I stakes in eight months. He was so hard-pressed to win his last start, the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, against a weak field that he looked as if his tough schedule had finally taken a toll. Ferdinand has had a busy season, too, though trainer Charlie Whittingham did give him a two-month midsummer break to rev him up for the Breeders' Cup. He is the horse to beat, but Afleet may nevertheless be good enough and sharp enough to beat him.

Afleet had never won a major stakes before September, when he went to Belmont Park and ran a mile in a sensational 1:33 4/5. Then he won the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby, beating Lost Code in another smashing performance.

Trainer Philip England still wasn't convinced that the colt could go 1 1/4 miles -- the Breeders' Cup distance -- so he ran him in the Meadowlands Cup to find out. The results were ambiguous. Afleet lost -- but by only a nose to the talented Creme Fraiche. Third-place Cryptoclearance, a solid distance runner, was six lengths behind him. From a speed-handicapping standpoint, Afleet's effort at the Meadowlands was as good as any race Ferdinand or Alysheba ever has run.

Afleet figures to stalk the only other speed horse in the Classic field, Judge Angelucci, and take command from him. He'll be in front an eighth of a mile from the finish. I will be betting that he is so sharp now that he'll be able to hold off the stretch challenges of Ferdinand and Alysheba. Listed at 8 to 1 in the morning line, he seems to be a very attractive proposition.

The Classic is just one of the many fascinating puzzles on the Breeders' Cup program. For anybody who likes handicapping the horses, there is no experience quite so challenging or enjoyable as sitting down with the Daily Racing Form and doping out the merits of horses from the East, the West and overseas in these seven races. I hope to build up my bankroll in the early races so I can give Afleet the kind of support he deserves. Here are my selections.

Sprint:

Groovy is the best American sprinter in many, many years. By winning Saturday he will complete a perfect seven-for-seven season and earn considerable support as the horse of the year. Unfortunately, his odds will be too short to make him an attractive betting proposition.

Juvenile Fillies:

Trainer Wayne Lukas has the edge in talent as well as numbers, saddling five of the starters in the 12-horse field. The strongest member of the team appears to be Dream Team, whose stretch-running style may give her an edge in a field loaded with speed. Classic Crown, a winner of two New York starts by a total of 18 lengths, is no slouch, either. Lukas' competition comes from Charlie Whittingham and his filly Jeanne Jones, but with only two lifetime starts she may have a disadvantage in experience. The intriguing Puerto Rican filly, Balquiria, is probably overmatched, even though she has won all eight of her starts.

Distaff:

Whittingham takes on three Lukas entrants here, too, but one mare is all he needs in the Distaff. Infinidad is the solidest bet of the day -- more solid even than Groovy. She won three stakes impressively against members of her own sex before losing to a top field of males on a track with a speed-favoring bias that hindered her. She's a natural at the 1 1/4-mile Distaff distance, too.

Mile:

In each of the last three years, Europe's ace miler has come here for this turf race. Each time the big-name foreigner has been trounced. Even so, the American representatives appear so weak this season that three European fillies figure to dominate the race: Miesque, Sonic Lady and Milligram. When Milligram beat the other two in a Grade I stakes at Ascot this fall, a clocker at the track said he had run the fastest final furlong he had ever seen at the historic track. But the others have the quickness that is usually essential in American racing. I'll take a flyer with Miesque.

Juvenile:

This race for 2-year-old colts is wide open. Lukas' colts Success Express and Tejano have accomplished the most, but they may be iffy propositions at the one-mile distance. The solid distance runner in the field -- and the only entrant who looks as if he may have real star quality -- is the Canadian colt Regal Classic. He has been facing moderate competition up north but he has been winning in a big way, capturing his last four starts by a total of 21 lengths. His times suggest he may be good enough to take this big step up in class.

Turf:

American's leading grass runner, Theatrical, has been winning in New York this fall with the benefit of very easy trips. He is beatable. And the horse who can beat him is Trempolino, winner of France's premier race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, last month. That was the only time in his career Trempolino had the chance to run on a turf course labeled "firm," and he was able to beat the best horses in Europe. He should appreciate the firm footing at Hollywood Park.