"Our horse is a real family project," Dororthy Poe said, as a tuxedoed waiter offered her profiteroles stuffed with crab meat at the inaugural Great Meadow steeplechase. "My husband, he and I raised the baby, and my husband's brother trains him. We're retired. I taught school and my husband was a stock broker. It was a kind of dream for us to do this.

"We've been raising babies for six years," she said. "I call them my babies. It's so grand when we raise them, when Mamma gets in foal. She's such a wonderful mamma. We sit up with her, and you see this new life. . ."

Her voice faded as her smile grew.

Poe and her sister-in-law Hazel Sudduth were standing in line for Saturday's lunch, a roast beef, salade nic,oise and chocolate-covered strawberries affair. If that menu didn't satisfy, guests could enter the adjoining tent for bacon-wrapped beef, potato salad, spiced applesauce and corn muffins. It was all arranged on silver trays. White candles in silver holders. Two stuffed foxes standing in a carpet of carnations served as a centerpiece.

"It's just so pretty," Sudduth said as she looked down Great Meadow's sloping lawn of lush green, past the brightly colored tents and white chairs, across the meadow with its fences and silver pond, past the white farmhouse and over the hills hazy with mist and blanketed in leaves of mustard yellow, apple red, fire orange.

"We were raised here in this county," Sudduth said.

"Fox hunting," she added in explanation. "That means riding as soon as you can walk."

"It's great," Sudduth said later after the races were over and Dorothy Poe's horse had run. "Our horse ran fourth, but it's still great. We like it no matter what."

You can see it in the eyes as the talk turns to jockeys and purses and foals and trainers, in the straight backs that show through the business suits and beaded cocktail dresses, in the smiles that speak of the bliss of days spent in smelly stables, of the thrill of the closing moments of a race or a hunt.

The love of horses: One woman who breeds horses in Middleburg, Va., calls it "equinitis."

"I have a serious case," she said, as she showed a friend the latest wallet-sized photographs of her darling winning a race. "You don't ever recover."

This past weekend, horse fever ran especially high. On Saturday alone the horse-obsessed of the area could choose between the 33rd running of the Washington, D.C., International at Maryland's Laurel Race Course and the steeplechase at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va. Last night, the annual Washington International Horse Show opened. And night after night there were parties, receptions, gatherings, where just about everyone shared the symptoms and the passion.

A few years ago a very successful horse died in California and 30,000 people attended the funeral.

This was just one of the facts you could learn at Friday night's party for Laurel Race Course founder John D. Schapiro at the Brazilian Embassy.

Other interesting horse-related information from the Brazilian Embassy:

"It's not as snobby as it used to be," said Connie Coopersmith, editor of Spur magazine. "If you can read, and read people well, you can get involved."

Racing is no longer simply a pastime for the old rich. It is a business. The purses at races are larger, the general public's knowledge greater, the influence of television growing. The old families no longer own all the good horses, and thoroughbreds are increasingly popular tax shelters. Over the past 15 years more and more people interested in racing have formed syndicates and bought horses together to cut down on the cost and the risk.

But all this hasn't robbed the world of its social clout. Arabs are drawn to racing, Coopersmith said, because if they do well, "then they've become more than somebody from OPEC."

And, she added, "It's a good thing to drop at a cocktail party. Yuppies say, 'Yes, I own a condo.' Big Yuppies say, 'Yes, I own a racehorse.' "

Judging from this weekend, loving horses may actually be becoming a trend.

"It's a little bit in vogue now," said W. Cothran Campbell of Atlanta. Campbell is head of a group of 190 people who own 38 horses. "It's the thing to do. The place to be in August is Saratoga. It's always been a good place, but it's a particularly fashionable place now."

On Thursday night, a disinterested observer wandered into a private party at the back of the Fairfax Bar at the Ritz-Carlton in search of peanuts to go with his drink.

"Horses are in," he commented upon learning he had been plunged into the world of horse lovers. "It's part of the conservative trend."

What To Wear on your next visit to Great Meadow for the races:

Men may choose between tweeds and the classic blue blazer-khaki combo. Either outfit must be completed with a jaunty cap or well-worn hat and a silk tie embroidered with one or more of the following: horses, jockeys, ducks, hunting horns, stirrups, saddles.

Women may choose from a kilt and Shetland sweater, khakis and Shetland sweater, blue jeans and Shetland sweater, flannels and Shetland sweater. Pearls are essential and suitable with all outfits, including jeans.

Optional accessories include horse jewelry (pins, earrings, belt buckles, rings); scarves with horse or hunting motifs; hats decorated with pheasant feathers; walking sticks; striped tarps to raise over your picnic in case it rains (as it did on Saturday); silver goblets. Toy foxes dressed in hunting pinks are also popular, and add that little extra touch when seated in the window of a Volvo station wagon.

"It's a social life," said owner Campbell at the Brazilian Embassy. "I think the people involved in racing are extroverts. They like a little zest in their life, and naturally they would gravitate to parties."

Australian trainer Arthur Pantoswas was trying to get across a room that was packed with about 150 people and, it seemed, a comparable number of trays of dates wrapped in bacon.

"It eases the nerves before the race," he said of the social occasions. His horse, he said, needed no such calming interludes. He was quite happy in his stable.

"He doesn't know what's going on."

Virginia Gov. Charles Robb hasn't been able to get to many races recently.

"I must tell you, I used to enjoy coming up to the Virginia cups, especially before I got married," Robb said on Saturday at Great Meadow, where he presented the trophy to the winner of the featured race, the International Gold Cup. "We'd rent a bus, have appropriate libations poured on the bus. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon."

"We're very horsey," said Eleanor Schapiro, wife of John Schapiro, on Thursday night. "Very, very."

Schapiro and about 50 other horsey people were at the Ritz-Carlton for a party thrown by Eric Ewoldt, director of the hotel, and Martin Garbisu, maitre d' of the Jockey Club. The guest of honor was former jockey and current mystery writer Dick Francis. Much of Francis' latest book, "The Danger," takes place at the Ritz-Carlton and Laurel Race Course.

"We live in the midst of fox-hunting country in Maryland," said Eleanor Schapiro, joint master of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt in Monkton.

"In Virginia, they're much more social," she said. "We're strictly a sporting hunt. We think our hounds are some of the best in the world. We're serious about our hunting."

One of Schapiro's sons is an amateur steeplechase rider, and her daughter and other son also ride.

"They are all very horse-minded," said Schapiro. "Girls always love it more than boys at first, but then you get the boys interested in the racing aspect and they love it, too. There seems to be an age when girls aren't interested in anything else but horses."

"I never grew out of it," said a woman standing nearby.

"Neither did I," said Schapiro.

Two funny things said about horses:

No. 1 -- "It's about the wine industry," said Dick Francis of his next book on Thursday night. "Most of my books have a racing background, but you can't keep on flogging a dead horse."

No. 2 -- "Nobody knows anything about racing," said car dealer Mandell Ourisman at the same party. "There's a joke about that. Once there were two horses standing in a paddock just before a race. 'Look at all those dumb people,' one of the horses said to the other. 'Why are they dumb?' the other asked. 'Because they don't know I have a tummy ache.'

"And," said Ourisman, "in that is a great, intelligent philosophy of racing."

"We wanted it to be a big family autumn outing," said Arthur W. Arundel, who publishes several weekly newspapers in Virginia and founded Great Meadow, a 550-acre site used for a variety of outdoor events. "We created it to have the energy of a 'Great Gatsby' affair, the feel and color of Monet's 'Boating Party.' "

There are certain traditions that go along with a day at the races. A tailgate picnic is one of the most treasured.

The land at Great Meadow on Saturday was divided into three areas by long fences. Life Founding Members (who contributed $5,000 each), regular members and guests could stroll through the central spread of lawns, eat at a reception catered by Ridgewell's, try out the two lunches in the big tents and attend a cocktail party at the end of the day. For $180 and up they could get varying sizes of "boxes," which consisted of white chairs and some white chains to separate them from the rest of the crowd. They had no need for food served from a station wagon.

But in the South Tailgate ($25 per car) and the general admission ($10 per car), the tradition was flourishing.

"I tried to do something a little bit different," said Alice Lanier, who breeds horses in Sumerduck, Va. "At Middleburg we did the silver -- very formal."

So, for a change, Lanier went with a seasonal theme. The lace tablecloth lay on top of another cloth in orange. Small pumpkins and dried corn stalks were heaped at the table's base, and between slender orange candles rose a circular, brass hunting horn filled with orange flowers. Lanier had the horn and flowers done by a florist in Manassas.

The station wagon, adjacent to the full bar set up on a card table, had become a temporary cornucopia of food for Lanier's 24 guests.

"Corned beef," she explained. "The different kinds of bread. Noodle and broccoli salad. Waldorf salad. Of course we had the potato chips and Fritos. Seasoned pecans. And our thing is champagne, so we have lots of champagne."

She raised her glass to illustrate, and some friends joined in the toast.