My father never took me to the race track. He took me to baseball, football and basketball games lots of times, but never a horse race. He said they were immoral. You know, betting, gamblers, winos trying to get rich quick, shady characters with sunglasses and cigars.

I got the impression it wasn't exactly the all-American sport. For good reason. When was the last time you saw a commercial about horse racing, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?

So naturally I was appalled a few weeks ago when a lady friend of mine plopped two bundles of racing ticket stubs on my lap and began telling me about how she lost $200 that day on the No. 7 horse.

"You went to the race track?" I said.

"Yeah, and I'm so made. I bet 1-7-2 in the last race and they finished 7-1-2. I could have won $500. Ooooooh."

I didn't quite understand. But the next day she took me to my first horse race. Things haven't been the same since.

I found that there's much more to the sport than a lot of hoodlums and touts. Last year nearly 3.5 million people attended Maryland races -- more than all the Redskins, Bullets and Orioles games combined.

George Washington was once a horse-race official and was known to have bet on races. Andrew Jackson helped establish the first race course in Nashville, Tennessee, and during his campaign against the British in New Orleans he is said to have placed bets by mail. No wonder they got their pictures on our dollar bills. In horses we trust.

In recent years several congressmen, senators and even presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are said to have frequented local race tracks.

"I remember when Nixon came out here. He was vice president then," says Muggins Feldman, 67, the publicity director for Bowie Race Track. "He came into the clubhouse and saw Walter Haight, the race reporter for The Washington Post. When Nixon recognized him, he came over and said, 'Mark my program for me, Walter.' Walter picked six straight losers."

Oh, for the losers. The average racing fan bets nearly $100 a night. And he's damn proud of it, too.

"When a person places a bet, he's not gambling. He's stating his opinion," explains Bert Enslen, 32, the program director at Laurel Raceway. "If you only put down $2, your opinion is weak. But if you put down $5, that shows you've not more confidence in your opinion. If you don't bet, what's the point? The people who come here bet. Even if they don't win, they're buying $2 worth of pleasure."

Enslen, who has worked in the race business since he was 15 (his mother was the first female racing secretary in the United States, at a track in Freehold, New Jersey), is filled with confidence.

Each night at Laurel Raceway he leads a handicapping seminar for the local bettors, advising them of his picks for the two triple-betting races.

"Usually I get two out of the three horses right," says Enslen. "I leave one for them to find.

"I don't bet because I work here; I just give my opinion. But I kept track of my results for the first 10 days of the meet, and 65 percent of my picks came in first or second. And when I'm wrong, it's usually not because my opinion's wrong. Usually something unexpected happens."

Bert is never wrong. It's always the wind. Or the mud. Or a bad driver. Or a horse that didn't do what it was supposed to.

And even though his picks are highly regarded, many regulars sneer at them. They all think they can do better.

"Everybody has their own system," says Ed Dougherty, 24, the tall, thin, scholarly press-box steward at Laurel Raceway. "Some go by times, others look at track position, others study the program and try to imagine how the race will run. I look for a horse that didn't look bad his last time out but had bad racing luck -- if his driver was boxed in or something."

Listening and watching Dougherty gives you the impression that horse racing really is some kind of great American sport.

He started out grooming horses five years ago, graduated with an English degree from Georgetown University this spring and is presently working on a book about Billy Haughton, one of harness racing's greatest drivers. Now he practically lives at the track, watching horses warm up in the morning and constantly discussing race strategy with the drivers and trainers.

"I really like to come out and see good horses. I think people like to see the great horse for the same reason they'd go to see two great baseball teams. Good horses look better. They're a little more proud. They're better cared for, better built and look much stronger."

One of the morning warmup regulars is Ron Allanson, 30, a grade-school teacher in Virginia Beach who owns part interest in a horse.

"I've always liked horses. I guess it's just the childhood fantasy of always wanting a horse," he says, swatting flies off his arm. "Where I teach school that's all the kids want, especially the girls. The girls are always reading the horse books.

"I don't know what it is about horses. I just like watching 'em go. It's amazing how fast they can go."

But is this the great American childhood fantasy -- to go to a horse race?

Sure, "My Friend Flicka," "The Black Stallion," "Black Beauty" and all those other great heart-throbbing stories were fun. But those horses never visited a race track. Not even Mister Ed. Could you imagine Flicka running around an oval while strangers bet on her thighs? No way.

Maybe part of it is the Kentucky Derby mistique, the championship of horse races, the race to end all races, the only two-minute event on Earth capable of riveting the attention of Americans all around the globe, not to mention drawing tens of thousands of spectators for a weekend of merriment.

"When I was a kid, one of the dreams I always had was to go to the Kentucky Derby," says Jerry Wagenhoffer, 40, the director of public relations for the Laurel Raceway, pulling a 1962 Derby ticket stub out of his wallet. "So I went, bet on a horse and it won and paid $18.70. Just being there and seeing the crowds, it's an adrenaline kick."

Just like baseball, hot dogs and apple pie -- and gambling casinos.

Several years ago the New York Racing Association took a survey of public attitudes on horse racing. After looking at the results, the then-president of the association, Edward T. Dickinson, concluded: "What's bad about racing? The gambling. What's good about racing? The betting."

Horse racing and betting seem to go together like $2 windows and $5 windows.

"Horse racing is the love of the horse," says Eugene Cossette, racing judge for the Maryland Racing Commission. "But everyone who goes bets. I've met some people who come to the track and say they're not going to bet. But eventually they're going to wager. It's part of the sport."

Just like the $25 Redskins pool at work. Except horseplayers get the thrill of payoffs or the agony of lost bankrolls ten times a day, seven days a week, all year round. They don't have to wait for Mark Moseley to miss three field goals or Billy Kilmer to get sacked ten times.

"There are two exciting things in the world," says William Alcorn Jr., general manager of Laurel Raceway. "One is to bet on a horse and win, and the other is to bet on a horse and watch it just barely lose.

"My mother will come out to the track every once in a while, and she'll make a $2 show bet. That's the most she'll ever bet. But if that horse wins, she's just elated."

Just as elated as Denny Landrum, the track photographer at the Laurel Raceway. Landrum, 31, is a member of the U.S. Air Force crew that flies Vice President Walter Mondale's airplane. When Landrum's not shuttling the VP around the globe, he's at the track taking photos from a tower at the finish line and cheering for horses.

"It's amazing people don't hear me up here," Landrum says. "If I've got a bet in a race, I'll be hollering for that horse the whole time."

Hollering, it seems, is an intrinsic part of the sport. At a baseball game you can holler, "Kill the ump." or "Get a hit, you jerk." But it isn't quite the same as, "Go No. 5, go or I'll lose my $10."

Everyone hollers: Little old ladies.Men in three-piece suits. And especially kids.

Scott Tilles and Todd Michaelson, juniors at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, are hollering for No. 1 in the sixth race.

"My dad hates the races," says Tilles, clutching a $2 ticket. "He doesn't like me to go. I have to promise him I'll only bet $2 to show. We usually come with about five or six friends, and I'm very cautious when I bet. But if I lose, it's okay. I just like the excitement.

Tilles and Michaelson say they go to the track nearly every night. But they can't top the record of Big Al ("Just call me Al; I don't need a last name") and friends from Red's Limousine Service.

"All our drivers are horseplayers," says Al, a heavy-set bald man with a W. C. Fields lisp. "We drive out to the race track every night. I've been doing it for the last 30 years.

"During the gas crisis we had a driver who ran out of gas four times on his way to the races. But he never gave up. I think he should get a medal or something for that. That's dedication."

As the last race of the day concludes, Al and his buddies toss away their losing ticket stubs and pile back into their limousines, ready for the start of another race the next day.

"This is just something to kill time," says Al. "You never win. The only way to win is to take your money from one pocket and put it into your other pocket. Everybody who plays loses."

Except a gangly lad in his 20s who everyone refers to as Ron the Rabbit. At least that's what they kept telling me.

Finally one night I met this Ron fellow. He was perched up in front of the track with a pair of binoculars and a stopwatch.

"I don't bet. I'm a private consultant," he said in a deep voice. "I really don't think I'd be that helpful to you. I just happen to have my own ideas about racing."

"What kind of ideas?" I asked curiously.

"I really don't have time to go into it," he said, fidgeting. "I have to concentrate. The best way is for you just to watch the horses. The warmup tells you a lot about a horse."

I turned to look at the horses and he mysteriously vanished into the crowd.

But before he left, he marked three winners on my program: Mandy's Good Friday in the second race, Millers Scout in the seventh and Soky's Diplomat in the ninth.

I placed my bets and sat back awaiting the payoff.

But Mandy, a 5-3 favorite, lost by a neck. Miller, a 5-4 favorite, came in third, far off the pace. And Soky, a huge favorite at 4-5, came in the only winner, paying a mere $3.40 on a $2 bet.

Meanwhile, my girl friend, who plays by picking her favorite numbers, won three exactas for $130.

I should have listened to Dad after all.