EVEN IN THE BAD OLD DAYS, BEFORE THEY PAINTED THE PLACE AND PROVIDED instant replays of past disappointments, Laurel was a good track for gamblers. We went there in the fall to find long shots among the shippers from Pennsylvania or among Maryland horses who hadn't taken to the tight turns of Timonium. Many of us didn't care for Pimlico, where the rail horses used to hold a lopsided advantage. Sure, Pimlico had the Preakness. Otherwise, the track was overrated and too far away, the drive back too long on a losing day. Charles Town was a crap shoot. Bowie, may it rest in peace as a training track, was a unique experience. But Laurel was a horseplayer's track. It was where we went in the fall to find a long shot. I FIRST DISCOVERED LAUREL ON A SUN -- WASHED NOVEMBER SATURDAY TWO decades ago when college football had begun to lose its charm. Racing was then illegal on Sunday, which was reserved for the Lord and the Redskins. I still remember that wonderful first day, when the wind kicked up sand along the rail, hinting of a hard winter to come, and the nuns retreated strategically with their collection plates inside the first set of double swinging doors at the clubhouse entrance. The nuns at Laurel were small and efficient and dressed the way all nuns used to dress in the old days. They have long since been banished or withdrawn from Laurel by some edict of church, state or private enterprise. I miss them. The nuns would smile with stern sweetness, as if reproving you for substituting Laurel for confession, and say "bless you" as you handed over the extra $2 you had planned to bet on an unlikely long shot in the first race. Usually, I cut down my bet on the logical horse and bet the long shot anyway.

I hit the daily double that first November day at Laurel. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have loved the track ever since. The double launched one of those awesome winning streaks where you have the feeling -- no, an absolute inner knowledge beyond any feeling -- that you are going to win if you don't break the spell by saying something stupid like "I feel like a winner." It is a spell of expectation, almost better than winning itself, like we used to have in the Army when we had survived inspection and were going on weekend pass. In those pre-exacta days at Laurel, horseplayers focused on the double, now out of fashion but still my favorite play. When you hit a decent double, you can play on the track's money throughout the afternoon, indulging in the transient comfort of the front-runner. Horseplayers always say they are playing on the track's money when they are ahead early. They have manners enough to avoid saying that they are gambling with the losses of fellow horseplayers. HORSEPLAYERS GO TO TRACKS TO gamble, not to watch a performance or root for the home team. But unless they are uncommonly insensitive, they recognize that they are gambling on the performances of extraordinary athletes, both human and animal. Every horseplayer has seen jockeys thrown and horses break down. Horses, which used to be killed on the track when they broke a leg, are now carted away before they are destroyed, usually by lethal injection. We all know what is going to happen when we see a horse struggling to walk on three legs while being shoved into a horse ambulance. The best thing that can be said about horseplayers on these sad occasions is that we do not take refuge in gushy rationalizations about how racing "improves the breed" and how accidents are an inevitable part of racing and the rest of that baloney. We go to bet on horses and expect a full card every racing day, knowing full well that the breed would be better off if horses had more rest between races and weren't asked to run on frozen tracks or in the mud. We do not get sentimental when a horse goes down, except maybe when the great filly Ruffian had to be destroyed back in 1975 after a match race at Belmont in which she should never have been entered. Mostly, we do not talk about what happens when a jockey is thrown or a horse goes down. But even the most hardened horseplayers know that what goes on before them at the track each day is dangerous business.

The true personal measure of whether a gambler values a race more than its outcome is his attitude toward a result that costs him money. Most of us flunk that test. I once had a 40-1 shot break down within 100 yards of the finish line, costing me a thousand dollars and the rider some bruises. It cost the horse his life. Sure, I was damned glad that the jockey walked away and consoled that my handicapping had identified a distant long shot as a legitimate contender in the race. But my thoughts were on the thousand dollars instead of the horse, which six strong men could barely drag into the ambulance. Still, what happened must have stayed with me, for whatever good that does. Weeks afterward, I dreamed about the way the horse had tried to keep running on three legs for a brief moment before he went down. That doesn't change anything. At the time the horse went down, my thoughts were on the thousand dollars.

Occasionally, however, horse or rider performs some feat so remarkable that even the least sentimental horseplayer finds himself rooting against his money. This happened to me this year at the Kentucky Derby. The horse, of course, was Alysheba, and the jockey was Chris McCarron, the best rider who ever graduated from Laurel. Alysheba is also one hell of an athlete. With less than three-sixteenths of a mile to run, he clipped the heels of the front-running Bet Twice and nearly dropped to his knees. Alysheba's fall could have triggered a chain reaction among the 13 horses still in the race behind him, turning the Derby into a catastrophe with horses and riders sprawled all over the track. I watched replays of the race half a dozen times in the hotel room afterward and couldn't understand how Alysheba and McCarron managed to avoid going down. Neither could McCarron. "I thought I was gone," he said, happy to have won the Derby and happy to have survived. MCCARRON MADE A NAME FOR HIMSELF at the Maryland tracks in the early 1970s. Horseplayers share with journalists and political consultants the joy of being present at the creation, and it was apparent from the start that McCarron was something special. Jockeys are courageous by definition, and most of them are reasonably skilled. However, not too many are rocket scientists, which is why the term "smart rider" is the highest accolade possible for a jockey. It is also why some of us, especially if we have western roots, are lifelong fans of Willie Shoemaker, who thinks about where he is on a race track and seems to have a clock in his head that tells him how fast his horse has run the quarter-mile. Shoemaker established a relationship with horses that is rare even for a top rider. "They want to ride for me, and they feel I am doing the right thing," he once said about racehorses. There have been riders with greater physical skills than Shoemaker, even in his prime, but he has won more races than any jockey because of his smarts. He is the ultimate thinking man's jockey.

McCarron also was a smart rider from the start, and with his own distinctive style. He has neither the head clock of Shoemaker nor the flair of Angel Cordero or Laffit Pincay Jr., but compensates with an understated grace that seems a rebuke to any sort of excess. When McCarron rides, he is grafted to his mount as if horse and rider are a single, gifted entity with a common destiny. In his early Laurel days, he was like some fine young ballplayer in the low minors who does his work without drawing attention to himself and is indefinably destined for the big leagues. For a time, when he was an apprentice rider, or "bug boy," McCarron seemed to improve from race to race. He knew he had a lot to learn, which set him apart from other young riders who think they are better than they are and get good mounts because owners and trainers want to take advantage, particularly in long races, of the lower weight allowed to horses ridden by apprentices. After a year of riding, jockeys lose the weight advantage and the program asterisk, or "bug," which distinguishes them as apprentices. Many riders then fall out of favor with the trainers and the fans, get down on themselves and, like vice presidents, are rarely heard from again. But McCarron kept on improving after he lost his bug. He is remembered with awe and fondness at Laurel. STASHED AWAY IN MY BASEMENT study, among the folders of the kids' kindergarten drawings and early report cards and the cardboard boxes of repetitive Reagan speeches, is an autographed black-and-white photograph of a smiling Chris McCarron aboard a horse called Ohmylove. They distributed the photo by the thousands at Laurel after McCarron set a world record on Dec. 17, 1974, by winning 516 races in a single year. Stapled to that photo is an uncashed $2 win ticket on Ohmylove, the only ticket I ever won and didn't cash on purpose. (I once threw away an exceptionally large exacta ticket at Del Mar by mistake, but that is another and more painful story.)

Not long after he set the record aboard Ohmylove, McCarron headed west to compete against the best jockeys in the world for the big Southern California purses. I interviewed him there at Del Mar in 1980, after he had become rich and famous, and found him still blessed with the understated star quality that had made him such a favorite at Laurel. "I think I am a better judge of things like pace, knowing how much horse you have under you, knowing when to move at the right time," he said. "I'm also better at keeping horses out of trouble." McCarron knew, maybe had always known, that fame is fleeting. "You've got to go out there and work your tail off to get the top mounts and prove you want to be the best," he said. "And once you reach that point, you've got to keep persevering." That is what he has done. THE TOTE BOARD IS A TRUE REFLEC- tion of athletic quality, but it is an imperfect measurement. In run-of-the-mill claiming races, horseplayers find it easier to identify with other human beings than with the horses they ride. One result of this identification is that we give too much blame or credit for what happens in a race to the rider and too little to the horse. Horseplayers know objectively that a horse's performance with an exceptional rider aboard may be little better, perhaps no better, than his performance when ridden by any adequate journeyman jockey. We rationalize our tendency to bet on inferior horses ridden by superior jockeys by telling one another that we have all lost photo finishes by that narrowest of margins called "a short nose." This sentimentalism spills over onto the tote board, where favorite jockeys are often overbet, even on horses that have no chance.

As a result of this tendency, Chris McCarron was often a bad bet at Laurel even before he set the record aboard Ohmylove. Sometimes, horses with only a marginal chance would actually become short-price favorites simply because McCarron was riding. These illogical, bad bets seemed to win just often enough to keep the crowd coming back for more. After Chris left for California, other jockeys inherited the role of overbet crowd favorite, though none of their mounts ever quite matched the theological attraction of "a McCarron horse." The fearless Vince Bracciale Jr. was the bettors' favorite jockey for a number of years. Then the mantle was assumed by Donald Miller Jr., a rider whose patient habits and preference for the driving finish make him a happy choice on horses who prefer this style and a dubious bet on faint-hearted front-runners. Now, the crowd favorite is the capable apprentice Kent Desormeaux, who some think will be "the next Chris McCarron." This is an impossible attainment in the opinion of those of us who believe that Chris McCarron is one of a kind. But Desormeaux, at 17, seems likely to be a dominant rider for years to come. We will cheer him on to the big leagues. HORSEPLAYERS ARE NOT KNOWN FOR their charitable views of jockeys, horses, racing stewards or track management. In Maryland, we have much to be uncharitable about. In addition to poor lighting and unpredictable plumbing, Laurel was notorious in the old days for almost never telling horseplayers what had happened when the outcome of a race was disputed. It is the only track where I have ever seen the order of finish changed without any objection or inquiry being posted. Certain owners were favored with ridiculously low weights in handicapping races. Certain trainers still are favored by the stewards when the objection involves a marginal infraction. Unfortunately for those of us used to the higher standards of California or New York, where out-of-state trainers get a fair shake, Maryland stewards tend to be bush-league umpires who favor the home team and invariably decide objections in favor of the Maryland-based stable. When a foul claim is lodged at Laurel, all experienced horseplayers know in advance what the outcome will be if a non-Maryland horse is luckless enough to be the subject of the objection.

Maryland horseplayers are also penalized by insufficient information, often critical to betting decisions, about pre-race workouts. Concealing the workouts of a horse before a race is a misdemeanor in California, but non-disclosure remains a legal and standard practice in Maryland, where the old maxim that "the first work belongs to the trainer" still prevails. No intelligent person would buy a new stock issue with as little information about the company as horseplayers often are provided about first-time starters in Maryland. To take a random example, a 2-year-old filly named Runaway in Sight started for the first time at Pimlico on Oct. 10 and led all the way, winning by 4 1/2 lengths and paying $20.80 for a $2 bet. Anyone who believes that this horse's only previous experience on a track was the ghastly five-furlong Bowie workout of 1:04 listed in the Daily Racing Form should also be a devoted disciple of the Tooth Fairy.

Horseplayers live lives of quiet desperation, an observation that the demise of Sen. Joseph Biden's presidential candidacy compels me to ascribe to Thoreau. They pay to park, to get into the track and to buy a Racing Form, a program and a tout sheet. If they sit in the dining room and tip the head waiter, they have to hit the first race just to get even. Depending on whether they make straight bets or prefer exactas, they submit to having 15 to 25 cents of each dollar they wager confiscated by the state authorities. If, once in a blue moon, they hit an exacta or double that pays more than $1,000, they have an additional 20 percent confiscated on top of the taxes they have already paid. No other country that permits legalized gambling imposes taxes so unfairly, but horseplayers do not have much of a lobby in Congress. Assuming that he can play cards as well as he handicaps, a gambler probably has a better chance of getting ahead at Las Vegas than he does at Laurel. No wonder horseplayers are apt to tip lightly and boo bad rides. They know that the odds are against them, every day and every race. AND YET, STILL, NEVERTHELESS -- ALL of the above and more -- Laurel, at least on sunny days, offers spiritual solace provided by no other gambling emporium. Each day offers hope of races run truly and well, of spotting logical long shots that have been overlooked on the board, of rediscovering friendships and of finding a refuge away from the tyranny of the telephone. I like to go to Laurel early, long before they have brought the horses for the first race from their stalls to the paddock. My best friend, who also goes early, usually orders a Cutty and a cup of coffee and studies the Form. I skip the coffee, though not usually the Cutty, and, if I have handicapped at home as I am supposed to have done, wander around before the race. I like to watch the replays of the races of the day before and look at the condition of the track and talk to other horseplayers. I also like to bet early doubles before I have talked myself out of them because they will pay less than they should. The one constant of my handicapping on winning days is that I have studied the Form beforehand in solitude, carefully marking my selections with a red ballpoint pen. I can write a news story on deadline without difficulty in the turbulence of a national political convention but inevitably overlook vital clues in the Racing Form if I begin my handicapping at trackside. Since I live in Virginia, where advance editions of the Racing Form are about as plentiful as Gutenberg Bibles, I have to buy the Form a day early at a downtown hotel across from The Washington Post. Often, the odds of obtaining a day off on Saturday are less than winning at Laurel, but I never regret advance purchase of the Racing Form. It is better reading than most of the political speeches that come my way in the normal course of employment.

My own handicapping is heavily oriented to the pace of a race and the proclivities of certain trainers. At Laurel I like to bet claiming horses trained by King Leatherbury when they are moving up in class rather than down. Unfortunately, this pattern is too widely recognized by almost every serious horseplayer in Maryland to bring major rewards. I also like to bet first-time starters trained by Bernard Bond and almost any horse trained by James Simpson. This year at Laurel we have all been impressed with the horses sent out by Barclay Tagg, as sharp as they are obvious to bettors. The short prices on horses trained by Tagg or Leatherbury make me long for the old days when I used to bet a trainer named John Lenzini who had an uncanny knack for claiming sprinters into which he instilled an ability to win routes (races of a mile or longer) when there was little in the horse's breeding to suggest he might prefer a longer distance. Lenzini's claims often paid big prices when running a distance for the first time.

Sensible study of past performances usually pays dividends at Laurel in the fall. By then, the better 2-year-olds have established form. The advantage held by older horses over 3-year-olds has diminished. Some of the over-raced, past-class horses that have been rested during the dog days of Timonium racing respond to the respite and the cooler weather and run back to their best races. And some horses, because of running style or track condition or an unknown factor that has eluded even the analysis of Andy Beyer, just seem to share my prejudice for Laurel. Horseplayers with accurate records or good memories of these "Laurel horses" usually can hold their own.

These days, miracles at Laurel most often occur when a horse is given the drug Lasix, which officially is used to control bleeding but actually is a way of turning seemingly hopeless horses into winners. Those of us who overlooked Alysheba in the Derby this year had discounted the rather obvious fact that he was on Lasix for the second time and had won the last time out when receiving the drug. This year, horses who are running at Laurel for the second time on Lasix seem to do especially well. HORSEPLAYERS HAVE FEW ILLUSIONS

about the human condition. They are existentialists, although most would not know the word and might identify "Existentialist" as some unplottable horse from Charles Town that had been shipped in to Laurel for the 10th-race triple. Horseplayers know that winning and losing are two sides of the same coin. We know that in racing, as in life, there are really no excuses and that each race and each day of racing has a beginning, a middle and an end. We do not share, in Walker Percy's phrase, the heart's desire of the alienated man to see vines sprouting through the masonry, but we know that the masonry will crumble despite the new paint job at Laurel. All of us lose in the end, and most horseplayers accept that on the basis of their own experience.

The bad jokes that horseplayers tell among themselves reflect this shared understanding. They also reflect the self-containment of the race track. There is the story of the horseplayer who rushes up to a friend to tell him that the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. "That's too bad," the friend replies. "Who do you have in the double?" Then there is the story about the horseplayer who bets heavily on a speed horse coming off a long layoff. The horse goes to the front but tires in the last sixteenth of a mile and is beaten by a short nose. Instead of cursing his luck, the horseplayer calmly accepts the result and offers to wager a friend that the horse will win on the televised replay that is routinely shown after each race. The friend shakes his head and takes the bet. When the replay shows the same result, the friend asks why anyone would make such a stupid bet. The horseplayer who had bet the layoff horse replies, "I thought he needed the race."

My favorite race-track joke is a story about an old horseplayer named Joe who has been going to the track forever and betting daily doubles that consist of two or three unlikely long shots in the first race hooked up with the logical horses in the second. One day, one of these long shots wins the first race, and Joe, yelling excitedly at the result, has a heart attack and dies. A friend, joining the table late, asks in the standard vernacular of double players, "Is Joe alive?" He is told: "Only in the double." WHAT THESE STORIES HAVE IN COM- mon aside from gallows humor is that they involve friendship, which is vital at the track. In my youth I sometimes went to the track by myself, for the thrill of it, but the experience means more to me than that now. I have taken all my children to Laurel or Charles Town or Del Mar and taught them how to read the Racing Form. With a little luck, I will do the same for my grandchildren. But I have gone to the track most often with my best friend, a sound handicapper who lends me money if I lose and has a penchant for turning his own losing days into winning ones by finding some unlikely winner in one of the late races. My friend, who in real life is an editor at The Post, tries to calculate the speed at which a race is likely to be run and then find a long shot capable of matching the projected winning time. This is a perfectly valid handicapping method, but it can be frustrating at Laurel, where the track conditions change from one day to another and sometimes from race to race and the rail is likely to go dead without warning. My friend also shares my weakness for betting long shots, a practice that can make any track a high-risk experience.

In the last few years, Laurel days have become a shared experience with him, my wife and a retired sportswriter who knows horses and is a treasure trove of track stories. They would be terrific company at any track.

My wife, no handicapper, has a sense of humor about Laurel and track people. She also has an eye for horses and sometimes spots the telltale signs of nervousness that betray a horse's attitude before a race.

The retired sportswriter, a reliable friend and probably the best handicapper of the four of us, pays attention to class and to pace and usually asks a fundamental though not always answerable question: "Which horse will make the lead?"

Like all of us, the retired sportswriter has his least favorite jockeys, the ones who always lose when you bet them and who win when you do not. Oddly, his nemesis is the redoubtable Donnie Miller, who seems to reserve his worst rides for races in which the retired sportswriter has made a big bet on a Miller horse. After Miller had butchered some short-priced favorite last summer at Laurel, the retired sportswriter summed up his feelings about this usually respected rider by saying, "He should be arrested by the police." WE WENT BACK TO LAUREL THIS FALL on opening day, looking for long shots. Laurel hadn't changed much. It took an hour and a half to get a cup of coffee in the dining room, where the announcements were as difficult as ever to understand except for a repeated "urgent call" for someone to fix the elevator. None of the toilets was working. One of the few betting machines in the clubhouse dining area broke down with regularity. I hadn't been able to find an advance Form.

I missed the double, after a significant investment, although my wife played a single $2 double and hit it. My confidence was further shaken by the sudden emergence of speed horses gaining ground on the rail, which experienced jockeys usually try to avoid at Laurel. The rail had changed, I realized belatedly. By the fourth race I was reeling, and the bankroll was dwindling. But in the race was a filly named Spring Debut, ridden by Desormeaux and getting Lasix for the second time. I thought she was a lock, even though matched against a good claiming filly, Double Stitched, which was made the 6-5 favorite. I bet Spring Debut straight and took a healthy exacta both ways with the favorite. Spring Debut won, paying $8.40, and the exacta returned $19.40.

All of a sudden Laurel was Laurel again, the way it was for me back in the days of the nuns at the door and the wind on the track and the doubles that kept me going throughout the day. I always feel like a winner at Laurel. It is dangerous for any gambler to indulge this feeling or forget what made him a winner in the first place.

The ninth race on the card was a live telecast of the Rothmans International Stakes, a turf race run at Woodbine in Canada. I knew nothing about Woodbine but had determined to bet a fabulous California turf horse named Swink, ridden by Shoemaker. By now, the winnings from Spring Debut had almost vanished, and I made a healthy early bet on Swink -- way too early as it turned out. Just before the horses went to the post, the Canadian announcer mentioned that the Woodbine turf course was soft. That was bad news for Swink, who shares my preference for pleasant California weather and firm California tracks. But it was too late for me to do anything about it, and there was nothing that Shoemaker could do, either. Swink ran for a while and quit, giving up on the soft turf and taking the rest of my winnings with him. A filly called River Memories came on to win the Rothmans, paying a bundle. She was ridden by my other favorite jockey, Chris McCarron. It does not pay to overlook Chris at Laurel, even on a telecast. :: Lou Cannon, a biographer of President Reagan, covers the White House for The Washington Post.