N THE BEGINNING was speed, and speed was power. And power begat luxury, and luxury begat grace, and grace begat competition. And so what began as the need to outrun, or outride, either prey or predator turned into a pleasure trip around the race tracks of Epsom and Aqueduct and Churchill Downs. And Pimlico and Rosecroft and Charles Town and, yes, Laurel.

Humankind's passion for the horse goes back almost as far as our relationship with the dog (and may run even deeper -- you don't find a lot of myths about demigods with four paws). Racing is at once the most patrician and most populist of sports, the descendant of war games and the delight of poets, engaging the wealthy breeder and the subsistence farmer alike. In this area it has particular resonance: The nearly 250-year-old Maryland Jockey Club is the oldest racing association in the nation; superstud Northern Dancer turned the Windfields farm in Cecil County into a breeding mecca; and the Preakness Stakes of Baltimore is part of the famous Triple Crown.

But somehow, in the '60s and '70s, Washington's romance with racing soured. The White House circle stiffened (no more Middleburg weekends) and the area's young people were consumed by social relevance. Gambling's raffish image turned seedy, and Maryland's racing industry was tarred by rumors of political corruption. And perversely, in the scramble to bring in more middle-class and family patrons, many tracks fell prey to the Groucho Marx syndrome -- if just anybody were welcome at the races, then nobody wanted to go.

Fortunately, in the last five years, horse racing in the Washington area has experienced a huge revival. Laurel routinely pulls in 12,000 to 15,000 spectators for live racing on a Saturday; the Preakness, one of Maryland's three or four most prestigious stakes, regularly draws 85,000. Bowie and Freestate are gone, but Pimlico is bigger, and, uh, better, than ever. If it's true that tighter times mean less recreational spending, then racing is showing real grass-roots support.

Even in traditionally conservative Northern Virginia, where betting was particularly unpopular, recent referenda show a public turnaround. Several groups of prominent Virginians, one including billionaire John Kluge and another Fairfax power broker Til Hazel, are lobbying to place a track either in Prince William County or on the road to Richmond.

So who goes to the track nowadays? White collars, blue collars and the increasingly numerous baby-blue middle-levelers; students, dating teenagers, retirees and senior citizens; day workers to night tracks, night workers and 6 a.m.-ers to day tracks. And more and more frequently, entire families, enjoying dinner and a 10-race card instead of a movie at the mall.

A larky outing at the races is a matter of playing it both ways; posing as a sharpie, and happily admitting your ignorance. (The latter can be more profitable than you'd think because anyone else you ask for advice immediately becomes an expert. You will never run out of hot tips at a track.) You can spend just five or 10 bucks and just hang out by the track; or you can go for the gold card with cocktails and dinner and the draw of a 10-race card.

All you have to do to start is make three choices: thoroughbred (the all-out, jockey squatting over the neck Triple Crown type you see on network television) or standardbred harness racing; day or night post times; and in which direction -- between about 10 and 6 o'clock around the Beltway -- you want to drive. For the moment, at least, the wedge of Virginia is vacant territory except for spring steeplechasing, which is to a slightly different taste -- a sort of proud amateurism, with its hunt heritage showing.

There are four active racetracks within about 90 minutes of Washington: Laurel and Rosecroft in Prince George's County, Pimlico in Baltimore and, just over the West Virginia line, Charles Town. Charles Town and Rosecroft are open more or less year-round, except around the December holidays. Pimlico and Laurel are owned by the same partnership, and the thoroughbred meets move back and forth between them. However, they are hooked up by satellite transmissions so that patrons of one track can watch and bet on races at the other, and so they are also open all year.

In addition, Timonium has 10 days of thoroughbred racing during the Maryland State Fair and the Prince George's Equestrian Center, site of the old Marlboro Race Track, is allowed two days of races in the fall (Oct. 24 and 31). Despite being "semi-retired," these two have sentimental claims on horse fanciers. Racing in Upper Marlboro dates to 1745, although the existing track goes back only to 1914; Timonium celebrated its centenary three years ago. And Marlboro was the site of what may have been the most famous stakes race of the 18th century: the 1768 match between the Maryland flash Selim and the French champion Figure.

A little farther away, along the Route 50 beach commute route, is Delmarva Downs, just this side of Ocean City. Delmarva Downs is aimed squarely at vacationers, open at night (who's going to waste those precious tanning hours?), Wednesday through Sunday roughly between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This year it's open a week longer, through Saturday.

So you can pick up and tack off almost any time. However, there's one thing to consider -- racetracks don't have telephones. This is to prevent calls to bookies or insider trading, so to speak, but it can come as a surprise to first-timers. If you head off on impulse, remember to stop at a pay phone outside the track grounds and call home. There are phone lines into the tracks in case of emergency, however, so you can leave the number with the babysitter. THE HORSES ARE OUTDOORS

The ancients were wrong: There are at least eight natural wonders. A horse's leg is a miracle of evolutionary engineering, a piston capable of launching half a ton or so at blurring speed down a sucking, reluctant track. It's also wishbone-slight, a mere sliver driven more by desire than by the whip. Great racehorses convey both intelligence and pride: You can breed for speed, but you can't plan for spirit. As was said of Black Gold, who broke a leg on the backstretch of Churchill Downs but refused to be reined in, "He finished the race on three legs and a heart."

So the first place to visit is the paddock, the area alongside the track where the horses are saddled and from which they parade to the post. There you see both the horses and their riders in real-life scale (one of the few regrettable consequences of greater TV coverage of horseracing is that it shrinks the horses and blurs the muscular definition) and see for yourself the strength of this one's withers, the length of that one's stride.

Besides, while enclosed (air-conditioned) grandstands make all-season racing a lot more comfortable for the spectators, some of the sensual pleasures are lost: the earth smell of the track, the sharper leathery perfume of hot horseflesh and tack, and the pounding of hoofbeats like their hearts out loud. Visiting the paddock helps put you back in physical touch.

Actually, there are spectator areas along the rail where you can watch the races, for the least expensive admission ticket, usually, but that cuts down the angle; more and more of the elevated seating is enclosed or at least behind protective glass.

The most ambiguous "advance" in spectating is the closed-circuit television system. Although it's invaluable inside the small club or dining areas where the view may be obstructed, it actually eliminates the need for the more businesslike gamblers ever to leave the betting cages; they just look up (barely) to watch the finish while they work over the charts for the next race. Even at tables with absolutely splendid views of the finish line, diners fall into the habit of watching the TV set under their noses rather than the race outside the window. THE PLEASURE DOME: LAUREL

If there is one track, and one group, that epitomizes racing's renaissance in Maryland, it is the almost totally renovated Laurel and the partners of the Maryland Jockey Club. Headed up until his death about a year ago by Frank DeFrancis, the onetime state economic development chief, the partnership first bought Freestate (now closed) and has since purchased Pimlico, which it is in the process of renovating. However, it is Laurel that since 1985 has been the showplace of Maryland racing.

In part, it's the bowing to glorious tradition that shows in the track itself -- a full nine furlongs, the 18-foot wide dirt track and the almost-as-broad turf track inside. The grounds are surrounded by trees and no development is visible beyond them even though the complex is easily accessible from both Routes 1 and 198. There is a lake curving graciously in the infield, and the paddock is a Victorian-style pavilion with tiny windows in the roof like an old carousel house. (The original Victorian farmhouse, in which the old manager lived, has been restored and now houses the two tracks' accounting department.)

The main building, which seats more than 10,000, actually encompasses three quite different areas: the clubhouse, including the members-only Sky Suite club and the open Turf Club; the grandstand; and the Sports Palace. The grandstand is the oldest and plainest section, with a $3 entrance fee, small food court concessions (a fair variety) and remnants of the old carnival-orange and yellow colors. There is a central bank of betting windows and televisions, plus access to a video library of all Maryland races for the past six months.

The Sky Suite is a two-floor area (with elevator) that includes a small, old-hotel style dining room, a larger polished wood bar and the delightful deco-ish lounge called Ruffian's, in honor of the great filly who tragically broke a leg at Belmont in 1975 during her challenge match against Foolish Pleasure. The entire Sky Suite has been redecorated in shades of burgundy and gray, thanks to Lynda O'Day, who's also working over Pimlico; it also has plenty of live plants, bronze sconces and chandeliers.

The Turf Club, which is the public dining area, looks out through the glass from just beyond the finish line. Behind it, near the wood bar with its old-fashioned racing mural, is the Mezzanine Theatre, a row of 35-inch closed-circuit screens and wide seats where patrons can nibble on popcorn and watch the races away from the clatter of food. There is also a row of smaller screens where the day's races are continually rerun. Admission is $5.

The Trump card is the Sports Palace -- a dress-up treehouse for 900 or so grownup sports fans. Admission here is $6 during the week and $7 on weekends, and a fairly strict dress code is observed. The first area is another mini-theater, this one with four extra-large-screen TVs that can be set up to show the four major sporting events of the day -- a golf tour shootout, a football game, a tennis tournament and a baseball game, for example. Small companion TVs keep the odds on screen ("so people remember why they're here," as Jockey Club executive Martin Jacobs delicately puts it); and behind are a bank of personal computers that can be used to access handicapping information -- a software Racing Form, in effect.

The Sports Palace holds the video library for the past six months, with a wall of individual TVs (whatever happened to the study carrel?) to punch them up on; and a huge double lounge area (half of it non-smoking), in gray and paler mauve but clearly evocative of the Sky Suite. Each half has two giant screens on which the two biggest events of the day are projected; at race time, one screen on each side shows the equine action. The Sports Palace has, of course, two betting stations, plus its own full-service bar and kitchen.

In case you're beginning to wonder, Jacobs estimates that Laurel has about 500 television screens all together. Between the electronics, the concessions, and the track itself, Laurel employs about 1,000 people every race day.

Laurel is also the financial gem, with its average daily take this year running over $1.5 million; that includes the video betting from Pimlico. However, Laurel is where the heaviest action is -- the video betting on Pimlico races from Laurel is more than one-third of the total take for Baltimore.

Incidentally, one of the recent additions is a small MOST/MasterCard/Visa cash station at the Turf Club end of the grandstand. Jacobs says the Jockey Club was reluctant to set one up, fearing it suggested they encouraged reckless spending; but finally agreed for the convenience of patrons who drive out on impulse. There's no house limit, but then, your bank usually puts one on for you. LAUREL RACECOURSE -- Routes 1 and 198 in Laurel, Md. 725-0400. Closed Wednesdays and Mondays (except for some Monday holidays). Post time is 1. Currently you can see only the Pimlico races on closed-circuit TV; live racing resumes Sept. 20. THE OLD ARISTOCRAT: PIMLICO

The traditional Sport of Kings is, fittingly, the Sport of Presidents as well. Andrew Jackson had a bobtail nag (although it was the white stallion Truxton that financed his first plantation) and George Washington bet on the Bay -- the Annapolis track, back when he was still just a colonial planter. Both of them patronized the Maryland Jockey Club meets at both Annapolis and Marlboro -- or Marlborough, as it was called until a postmaster with writer's cramp summarily shortened it. J. Edgar Hoover owned a box at Marlboro (of course, Hoover only thought he was Chief Executive) and even Richard Nixon visited Laurel back in the bleak old days.

At 120, Pimlico is the grand old man of Maryland tracks. It's also the aristocrat of tracks, formerly the property of Vanderbilts and before them, the great colonial family names; but until DeFrancis and Co. took it over, it was aging as badly as a powdered wig. Located within the city of Baltimore, and accessible by public transportation, Pimlico suffered through the same vicissitudes of urban life as its blue-collar neighborhood. Even attendance at the Preakness had dropped off for a while; the rather ragtag army of fans that used to set up camp in the infield discouraged the more orderly patrons, but the restrictions are a little stricter these days, and the new trend is toward a sort of romantic neo-traditionalism. More straw hats and fewer stewed patrons, as it were. And with the revival of the entire city of Baltimore, its almost palpable resurgence of civic pride, the track is showing new spirit.

In addition, the mile-long racetrack has been resurfaced, easing jockey complaints, and the smoky and darkish grandstand is gradually being improved. The old bumblebee yellow and black outside seating is now a trimmer teal and black with a very GQ teal-and-pink threaded carpeting in the boxes. Pimlico's own version of the electronic-age Sports Palace (green rather than pink) opened in the spring of last year; it seats about 150 in the front lounge overlooking the track and another 300 or so inside, and costs a little more -- $7 weekdays and $9 on the weekends.

PIMLICO -- Hayward and Winner avenues, Baltimore. 301/542-9400. From I-95 take 695 west to Exit 18 east onto Liberty Boulevard; at the seventh traffic light turn left onto Northern Parkway and follow signs to the track. Closed Mondays and Wednesdays. Post time is 1. Pimlico will host live racing until Sept. 18, then return to off-site betting by closed-circuit TV from Laurel. DINNER THEATER RACING: ROSECROFT

Maybe it's because there aren't a lot of restaurants or country clubs in Oxon Hill. Maybe it's because it's so close to the Beltway -- the EZ-Off racetrack. Whatever the reason, Rosecroft's night harness races draw a sort of reverse-trendy crowd. Most of the patrons seem either a little younger or a little older than you'd expect. Midweek after work especially, it's a hangout for cigar-smoking pols in pinstripes and comfortably softening businessmen in knit-collar shirts, with middle-class family groups and a handful of slightly shy and heavily made-up teenagers. It's the kind of place where the men's sideburns tend to be longer than the back of their hair, and only women use mousse. It's the kind of place to pretend to be somebody else. But it's fun, and for a winterized barn of a grandstand, it's remarkably hospitable.

What it is is the banquet hall of a concessionaire's nightmare. Rosecroft's restaurant seats about 1,000, in a spread-out grandstand that prevents any easy centralization of food or beverage service. The servers are pretty practiced, however, and generally frank on the night's food; and a few are downright funny about the shortcomings of the setup.

The menu is old-style, jumbo-napkin Washington -- prime rib (with that sort of canned-flavor au jus), New York strip, crab cakes, fried chicken, etc. -- and, you should know, at old-Washington prices. One of the door prizes at Rosecroft is a $50 certificate for two, and you might not make it at that price. However, the drinks are pretty generous, and almost the entire track, only a half-mile, is well within view.

Rosecroft (and Delmarva Downs, which both belong to developer Mark Vogel) race both trotters and pacers, although there are usually only a couple of trotter races on a card. The drivers are the same, and so are the sulkies, and so, generally, is the speed; the only difference is in the horse's gait. Only one of a trotter's hooves touches down at a time, while a pacer has a one-two-three beat -- two feet land simultanously.

Harness-race drivers are a sturdy lot, trundling out in even the most astonishing deluges and chill. (A thunderhead rising over Rosecroft's grandstand can be as ominous as a Steven Spielberg special effect.) However, for those more accustomed to flat racing, the pace may seem slow, less dramatic. That may explain why so many diners at Rosecroft pay so much more attention to the TV broadcast of the race than the real thing just beyond it -- that and the fact that you can watch the baseball game on cable in between races.

While Laurel is looking to develop a broad and perhaps slightly upper-class urbanish audience, Rosecroft is very conscious of its community connections. Many of the tellers are youngish women; Thursday ladies nights feature fashion shows from a local shopping mall boutique (this is not necessarily fashion central, but the models are pretty sweet), and there are other such local promotions.

Incidentally, Rosecroft may be one of the first places in Prince George's to install attendents in the ladies' lounges. Remember to carry a tip, and I don't mean a betting sheet. ROSECROFT -- 6336 Rosecroft Drive, Fort Washington. 567-4000. From the Beltway take Exit 4 onto St. Barnabas Road south and an immediate left onto Brinkley, then right onto Rosecroft Drive. Rosecroft races almost all year, except between Dec. 22 and Jan. 27. In good weather it's dark Mondays and Tuesdays; between about November and March it's also closed on Thursdays. Post time is 7:30. WESTWARD, WHOA!: CHARLES TOWN

Racetracks usually come in two varieties -- those where the horseflesh is the attraction, and those where the money, or at least the flashing of it, seems to be the main draw. At Charles Town, though, it's tough to tell: The money seems short -- the stakes are the skimpiest around -- and the racing stock is in a bear market. The grandstand is pretty dilapidated (but then, burnt orange and brown is born looking old), with well-creased newspapers slipping off those plastic bucket seats, and the hawking of various state lotteries makes it seem even more tawdry. And unfortunately, as modest as the strip along Route 340 just outside the track is by Washington standards, it's clearly visible from the restaurant, ruining what would be the green backdrop.

The clientele often seems rather dispirited. The older, more pragmatic bettors tend to stay inside the grandstand, watching the monitors from the beer bar; young and rather inattentive teenagers hang around the paddock and the bleacher seats.

On the other hand, the drive to Charles Town is lovely, a trek that almost intentionally reflects a return to a more innocent age. Announcer Costy Caras is the Howard Cosell of local racetracks, only with a nasal blockage ("Eat ease now . . . ah, post time," with a late-bulging inflection that resembles the Little Prince's drawing of a well-fed boa constrictor). Charles Town is sort of the underdog of area racetracks, which makes some people perversely fond of it. And you can almost always walk right into the restaurant without a reservation.

Like Laurel -- like Pimlico, like Rosecroft, like Candlestick Park and hundreds of other sports arenas -- Charles Town has turned its kitchen concession over to the Harry M. Stevens Company. And after a couple of these meals, you may be asking yourself, Who is Harry M. Stevens and why is he feeding all those terrible things to me?

Well, this is worth knowing: Harry M. Stevens -- himself now deceased, unfortunately -- invented that great American symbol, the hot dog! At a baseball park, just over a century ago. And frankly, maybe he should have quit while he was ahead.

No, no, it's not really that bad. Washingtonians are, of course, getting terribly spoiled about culinary choices. The Charles Town menu is actually broader than the one at Rosecroft, but closely related. It is heavy, it is frozen (or canned) to a great extent, and it definitely gets to be weird to keep having zucchini boats filled with dried shavings of horseradish (I think -- it took meals at two tracks to sniff it out) as garnish. But it's hearty; and considering the only other eateries in the entire neighborhood tend to the fast-food franchise variety, it's a hot spot. (You know, they have tofu dogs at Candlestick; maybe a little macrobiotic lobbying is in order.)

Driving to Charles Town really is a trip back in time, if you take the most picturesque route, which is over White's Ferry to Leesburg, then onto Route 9 right through one of the prettiest little 19th-century communities around, Hillsboro. You rise into the mountains and do those hairpin turns that sports cars were made for; and just before you get to Charles Town, as you cross the Shenandoah (not at one of its broadest or more picturesque moments, admittedly), there are a couple of those tiny six-by-six sleeping huts, almost like bus shelters, where hunters and fishermen used to bunk, equipped with a doorknob and a cast-iron skillet and not much else.CHARLES TOWN -- U.S. Route 340, Charles Town, W. Va. 737-2323 or 304/725-7001. From the Beltway take Route 7 west to Leesburg. Take the Route 7/Leesburg bypass to Route 9 west to Route 340. Follow into Charles Town and look for the entrance. From the northern suburbs, you can take I-270 to 70 to Route 340, but it's not as much fun. Charles Town races a split night/day schedule all year except the week before Christmas and such special events as Super Bowl Sunday and any Monday night that the Redskins are on "Monday Night Football" (seriously). Post time is 1:30 Wednesdays and Sundays; 7:15 Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.