How good is Safely Kept? At first glance, the answer to that question might seem obvious. After all, the filly was honored as North America's champion sprinter of 1989, she hasn't been defeated in 1990 and she will be heavily favored to win the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Pimlico Saturday.

In her career she has made 19 starts, winning 16 and finishing in the money in the rest, for a record that falls only slightly short of perfection.

Yet when it is subjected to scrutiny, this glittering record is not nearly so good as it looks. The Maryland-bred filly has spent most of her life following the path of least resistance. She has won few (if any) races against truly top-class competition. Even though Safely Kept has passed the midway point of her 4-year-old season, we still don't know a great deal about her capabilities.

Last year, as a 3-year-old, Safely Kept rolled to eight straight victories over fillies and mares before she took on male competition in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Rarely has a race been so inconclusive. A chain-reaction bumping incident at the start knocked half the field -- including the five top choices in the wagering -- out of contention.

Safely Kept avoided the trouble and then put on a dazzling display of speed. She outran the star California sprinter, Olympic Prospect, who had been regarded as the quickest thoroughbred in the world. The exertion of running the first half-mile in 44 seconds took its toll, however, and Dancing Spree rallied to beat her in the final strides.

This gutty performance, coupled with a more impressive overall record than that of Dancing Spree, earned Safely Kept the Eclipse Award, although there were some vigorous dissenters, such as the New York Times' Steven Crist. How, he asked, could you give the title to a horse who had scored all her victories against weak filly competition and had lost the only important race in which she had run?

At the start of this season, owner Barry Weisbord declared that he was going to answer such criticism by giving Safely Kept some tough tests. Having won a championship that secured her future value as a broodmare, he could now afford to be venturesome. Maybe he would see if the filly could go a mile against good competition. Maybe he would try her on the grass. Maybe he would sent her to England for a stakes at Royal Ascot.

But Weisbord wimped out and put the filly on a path of almost no resistance. Her most venturesome trip of the year has been to Finger Lakes Race Track in Canandaigua, N.Y. She has been favored at odds of 3 to 10 or less in all five of her starts this year and has won them all with ease. The owner explained that the filly had had some minor physical setbacks early in the season and then, he said, "When the De Francis Memorial was conceived, this became our objective." With its $350,000 purse the Pimlico race is the second-richest sprint in the United States; there was no race in the world that made more sense for Safely Kept.

Even though Safely Kept has been dominating her competition, the quality of her performances has been ambiguous this year too. In the view of handicappers who judge horses according to the final times of their races, Safely Kept has not done anything impressive; her speed figures are more like those of an allowance-class horse than a champion. But if the filly hasn't run fast enough to please some critics, the reason may be that she keeps so much in reserve. She typically delivers a knockout punch early in a race and then cruises to the wire, without any urging from jockey Craig Perret.

And she has scored these five victories, Weisbord said, without being revved up for any of them.

"Last year we really trained her for two objectives: the Test Stakes {at Saratoga} and the Breeders' Cup," he said. "She hasn't trained hard for a race this year -- until now. We work her more seriously and with the works closer together. She's a real smart horse; she can sense when she's dealt with more seriously. She gets more businesslike. And she's on it now."

Weisbord concedes that even he occasionally asks the same questions about Safely Kept as her detractors. He is a believer in speed figures, and he knows what they say about most of the filly's performances. He knows too that effortless victories don't prove much about a horse's capabilities.

"Sometimes," he said, "I'm not sure what to think about her. I guess the proof will be in the pudding -- on Saturday."

Running against formidable male competition in the De Francis, Safely Kept finally will get to show whether her reputation has been inflated because of soft competition or whether she is a genuine champion.