We're in the Sports Palace at Laurel Race Course, which could be the recreation room of some fancy ski resort, and if we're watching horses, why do they look like the Chicago Bears?

Assorted people enact different forms of play in the carpeted expanse. Some sit in the "studios" -- mini-cinema enclosures where inset TV screens show Eric Dickerson being flattened and Walter Payton romping. Next to the TV screens, other video screens show betting and horse-running information. Behind these, computer screens offer such equine essentials as the record of Marion's Madel in the home stretch of dirt tracks when it rains.

It's all part of the turning-around of Laurel, part of the effort of lifting the seedy track from a graveyard of tired old men in plaid coats hacking over their Racing Forms.

Don't think horse racing at Laurel any more. Think yuppie toyland.

The "We Care More Than Your Mom" atmosphere is all part of it. The Chatty Cathy courtesy of valets, elevator operators and bet handlers rivals that in an airline commercial.

When Frank DeFrancis and the Manfuso brothers (Tom and Bob) bought the track in December 1984, they decided to put Laurel Race Course back on the map. They have put glitz back into the annual Washington, D.C., International by upping the purse and inviting foreign owners and Hollywood faces to the event. (At the latest International, diplomats matched bets with Cathy Lee Crosby and Joe Theismann, Merv Griffin and Eva Gabor.)

The owners also put half a million dollars into creating the Turf Club -- an indoor section of seating complete with owners' enclosures where observers can watch the races through an enormous glass window front while also catching the coverage on small television screens. They put a fat little $2 million into building the crowning achievement -- the Sports Palace, a carpeted indoor playing ground of television screens, computers, a 40-foot bar and dining tables, where visitors can watch NFL football and horse races at the same time.

Think Entertainment Center, or how do we lure the kids, the family groups and the couples from the bathtub comfort of their living rooms?

"There's 6 1/2 million young people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor," says co-owner Tom Manfuso, who is on his way to the track to congratulate the winner of yesterday's big Jameela Stakes. "We got the people 'round here, and the people've got the money.

"People talk about getting back to the way horse racing used to be 30 years ago, but 30 years ago you didn't have the lottery and Atlantic City."

Says marketing director Lynda O'Dea: "You can combine your racing afternoon with a sporting afternoon, casino style. I think you'll agree it's tastefully done."

Walking into the main hall, a visitor finds two huge TV screens at each end of the room booming NFL playoffs. Suddenly the lights dim and the football vanishes. It's time for Race No. 7 at Laurel, and those milling around lean toward the screens, Racing Forms in hand.

The Sports Palacers, who fill all the tables, watch silently at first as the horses leave the gate and form a sweating cluster of racing flesh. But as the horses get closer to the final stretch, the inhibitions fade.

"C'mon, I said!"


The race ends. Winners whoop and losers refill their beer glasses or munch disconsolately on nacho chips.

"I didn't bet today," says a horse trainer who didn't want to be identified. "Just wanted to enjoy myself looking." He says he comes to the Palace two or three times a week. On the other side of the hall from him sits a young couple, watching the races with spirited conversation.

The screen switches back to a view of Chicago's Steve McMichael sprawling on the turf at Soldier Field.

"I love this place, I really do," says Anthony Capuano, a horse trainer from Hyattsville who says he comes to the Palace often. "Back in the grandstand, you got guys tearing up their papers and they look like they're spending their last dime. But here it's like an entertainment thing."

The old-timers don't come in, Capuano says. "These track people, they'll bet $1,000 on a race and blow it at Atlantic City, but they won't spend the extra $7 to get in here.

"This place is for people like Linda," he says, pointing to his companion, Linda Barnhart of Annapolis. "I know a little bit, but she knows absolutely nothing. But that's great. Sometimes you're too smart, you know, you're just too smart."

"I only pick horses by the color of their jerseys," says Barnhart, by way of confirmation.

Brenda Goodall, a model from Baltimore, is telling her husband he blew it. "I had the triple," she tells Richard Goodall, a lawyer. She had guessed all three horses for a race that would have netted her more than $6,000.

"I told her, 'There's the betting window,' " her husband retorted.

But it's okay, Richard Goodall says, because on this betting day, "I'm substantially ahead."

"We all work seven days a week," says Tom Manfuso, sitting now in the Sky Suite, a private glass-walled section that hovers above the Club Room and over the track. The Manfusos sold their family pharmaceutical business to get into horse racing, he says. The reason for their success, he says, is a cultivated family atmosphere. This involves, in part, giving the winner of the big race loving-cup congratulations -- a drink and a VHS videotape of the race.

"We make sure the patrons are treated properly," he says.

DeFrancis, president of the business, is talking figures: "We're up 15 percent in mutuel handle" -- the cash slapped down for wagers last year versus in 1984. In 1985, he says, "we averaged $1.5 million a day . . . And since January [1986] we're averaging over $1,250,000 a day."

That's a whole lotta mutuel for an entertainment center. But you can't bet on the games.