The ranks of the nation's stakes-class older horses are so depleted that even ardent fans can't muster much interest in races that usually determine the sport's champions. The game's present condition may prompt pessimists to fret about the state of the American thoroughbred.

In this dreary time, what horse racing needs is a bright new star, a savior. And maybe it's going to get one.

The problems at the upper level of the sport are reflected by the seven-horse field that will contest the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park today. The Woodward is one of America's most prestigious races, with a roster of past winners that reads like a thoroughbred Who's Who. But today's matchup of Running Stag vs. Almutawakel will not evoke memories of Damascus vs. Dr. Fager.

The field is so thin because injuries have felled so many big-name horses. Silver Charm, Free House, Real Quiet and Victory Gallop -- stars of the past two Triple Crown series -- have been retired or sidelined. Other top horses who remain ambulatory are sitting out the Woodward. Behrens, now rated the country's No. 1 horse, is skipping the race because trainer James Bond wants him "fresh" for the Breeders' Cup. We wouldn't want our champion horses to overtax themselves by running once a month, the poor little dears.

American racehorses have become so fragile that they don't last as long or race as frequently as the best horses of the past. It is revealing that the the top two contenders in the Woodward are both foreigners. Running Stag, the German-bred, English-based 5-year-old, has regularly shuttled across the Atlantic for big races. The English-bred Almutawakel won the $5 million Dubai World Cup earlier this year. It is easy to make a strong case that permissive medication policies have weakened the U.S. thoroughbred over the past 25 years; horses make their reputations with the aid of drugs, and then beget offspring who can't run without medication, either. American horses used to be much tougher and more robust than their European counterparts, but they aren't anymore.

Of course, whenever the sport has a subpar year, many fans will draw the conclusion that the overall quality of American racehorses is going downhill. Usually the appearance of new racing stars will quiet the negativists. Those stars have appeared on the horizon.

The current generation of 2-year-olds is unquestionably the most promising crop of the 1990s. One could reasonably argue that it is the best-looking juvenile crop since Spectacular Bid and General Assembly were 2-year-olds in 1978. Two colts -- one in the West, one in the East -- have delivered performances that have led judicious observers to exclaim, "This is the Kentucky Derby winner!"

Throughout the summer, Forest Camp was reported to be the best prospect in trainer Bob Baffert's army of well-bred 2-year-olds. But even after the colt won his racing debut in good style, few would have expected the performance he delivered in the Del Mar Futurity last week.

Jockey David Flores had Forest Camp under a hammerlock as he stalked the pacesetter, Dixie Union. And Dixie Union is no slouch; undefeated in three previous starts, he was considered the West's best 2-year-old. But when Flores turned him loose, Forest Camp blew past the favorite as if he were standing still, and drew away to an overpowering 5 1/2-length victory. In almost any other year, Forest Camp would be in a class by himself.

But the East's best 2-year-old, More Than Ready, has looked just as good, winning all five of his starts, four of them stakes. He shattered a 26-year-old track record when he won the Tremont Stakes at Belmont in July. He topped that act in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, dueling with a fast front-runner and drawing off to win by nearly 10 lengths. He will shoot for his sixth consecutive victory at Belmont on Sunday.

Not only have these colts been visually impressive, they have been fast. In the 1990s, the best Beyer Speed Figure earned by a 2-year-old champion has been a 103. Yet Forest Camp ran a 106 in only his second career start, and More Than Ready has posted back-to-back 105s.

Other promising colts in the 2-year-old crop haven't had the chance to show how good they might be. Chief Seattle and Saints Cup won their racing debuts at Saratoga by 10 lengths. This generation has a superstar filly, too: Chilukki earned a phenomenal speed figure of 109 in her debut, and has won all six of her starts.

Chilukki may turn out to be a mere sprinter, but Forest Camp and More Than Ready have pedigrees to suggest they will be even better when they start running longer distances as 3-year-olds. Those of us who have fretted over the decline of American horses in 1999 may hail the year 2000 as a golden age.