Into the starting gate . . . and - they're off! The 11-day 1978 Preakness Cultural Festival, bringing thousands of people into Baltimore and the pulsating rhythm of the big race at Pimlico on May 20. The crescendo builds all week, with the climax on Preakness Day.

Eleven days (nine leading up to the big event and one to recover) will be filled with food, music, entertainment, crafts, sports and neighborhood-to-neighborhood activities going all day, every day. Many of the shows and exhibitions take place at Baltimore's revitalized Inner Harbor, although activities celebrating the festival are spread over the entire city.

Thursday night's Preakness Pasta Party led off the festivities. At 10-30 this Friday night, the Ballroom Balloon Bash at the downtown Hilton Hotel begins with its 24 continuous hours of live entertainment. Saturday at 8 the scene shifts to Patterson Park for the Sixth Annual Preakness Festival Balloon Race across the Chesapeake. Later, 11 to 4, there'll be an Antique Fire Engine Muster at the Inner Harbor, and around the city neighborhood festivals will offer crafts, food, entertainment and tours.

Sunday, Mothers' Day elsewhere, is the Baltimore from 1:30 to 4. The events continue all week, encompassing the Preakness race a week from Saturday, concerts, tours and county exhibitions, and ending with a "survivors' party" at the Inner Harbor on Sunday May 21.

Although the Preakness is 105 years old, this will be its 103rd running, since there was a three-year hiatus from 1891 to 1893. By contrast, the Cultural Festival is a baby, having existed for only 10 years; but the entire city is participating in this year's attempt to rival New Orleans' Mardi Gras and Louisville's Kentucky Derby Festival.

Even if you don't know the difference between a colt and a filly, or whether to bet the horse in the fifth to win, place or show, you can enjoy the "peripheral" activities of the Preakness. Naturally, the weather has a lot to do with the success of the race, especially in terms of the number of spectators. Last year's Preakness drew a record crowd of 77,346, about half of them enjoying the day from the infield of the track.

Sure, there's the posh Jockey Club and the Hall of Fame Dining Room with its portraits of famous jockeys, the clubhouse and the grandstand with hot-dog and ice-cream stands, souvenir caps and T-shirts and whistles.There are even various art exhibits scattered around the interior at Pimlico, including a series of murals depicting racing scenes painted by students at the Maryland Institute of Art and a collection of pictures by Greg Morris, an exercise boy/steeple-chase rider who doubles an artist.

But despite the attractions inside, one of the most exciting places is infield, with the horses racing around you on the dirt track and thousands of people basking in what track officials hope will be sunshine. Although the first race on the card is scheduled to go off at 12:30 on May 20, the gates will open at 9 so partygoers can stream through to claim choice spots along the infield fence. As in other years, they'll bring their own entertainment: Frisbees and blankets, volley balls and picnic baskets will be in abundance.

There's planned entertainment as well: Eight groups of musicians, dancers and marchers will be on hand, including a Dixieland band, Cub Hill Cloggers mountain dancers, an old-time string band, Appaloosa rock group and Hollins Ferry. At 10:30, there'll be a lacrosse match between the Chesapeake Club and the Baltimore Lacrosse Club at the north end of the infield. Crab cakes, Maryland fried chicken, cotton candy and beverages will be on sale. Then, of course, spectators will witness the post parade for the 103rd Preakness race at 5:40 as the band plays "Maryland, My Maryland."

Whether you're in the infield Preakness Day or in Baltimore during the week for the Cultural Festival - and even if you've never been to a track - you can sound educated with a few facts under your belt, such as the names of Affirmed the three-year-old thoroughbred who won the Kentucky Derby last week, and Alydar, the horse Affirmed beat out. The stakes are high - the accumulated eligibilty, entrance and starting fees plus $150,000, and a replica of the Woodlawn Vase trophy.

Now that you know about the Preakness' Cultural Festival, want to bet whether you'll be in Baltimore sometime this week? Say $50 to win?