LOVERS OF literature know that decades may pass between books that deserve to endure. Movie buffs understand that many a lean year can come and go until another film appears that compares to ''The Godfather." So it is that devotees of the sport of kings approach today's Kentucky Derby with a reverent secular expectancy, wondering whether George Steinbrenner's big beautiful dark bay colt, Bellamy Road, belongs in the same equine pantheon with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Citation.
As on the great stage of history, accidents can mar the running of the Derby. Even the most talented individual can stumble coming out of the gate or be knocked off stride by a competitor lunging in or bearing out. But if no such bad luck intervenes during the frenzied two minutes of the Derby's mile and a quarter, a verdict will be delivered on the place of Bellamy Road in racing history.
Aficionados of thoroughbred racing will be hoping that what they have seen of Bellamy Road is not an optical illusion. This is a hope deriving not merely from the spectator's desire to witness a history-making Triple Crown victory. Racing needs another Secretariat or Seabiscuit to capture the public's imagination, because this sport too often seems to be withering away in the manner of some hopelessly antiquarian pastime-- like waltzing, say, or fox hunting.
On weekdays at the capacious Belmont Park, for example, a mere four or five thousand people attend what in the age of simulcasting is called ''live racing." For racing fans who recall a time when Belmont hosted 50,000 or more spectators every Saturday and when cab drivers and barbers argued the relative merits of Native Dancer and Tom Fool as readily as those of the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, the transformation of racing into a televised casino sideshow seems a sad emblem of the passivity endemic to the age of cyberlife. At its best, horse racing can offer, simultaneously, a gorgeous sporting pageant and a test of one's analytic talents as daunting as chess.
In the approach to today's 131st Derby, some of racing's internal stresses have been resolved, at least temporarily.