Daisy was up to her shoulders in the stuff, her nose deep in the effort, her hind quarters pointed delicately skyward at near vertical pitch, her paws fluttering at competition speed.

For three exhausting minutes of yesterday afternoon's first Ferret Frolic in Mount Vernon, Daisy, one of 30 competing critters, scratched and scraped her way to glory.

Occasionally her tiny nose emerged from the sandy pit, her beady eyes scanning the breathless bystanders for some sign of encouragement. Then, exhorted onward by her favorites and the droning timekeeper, Daisy tore into her assignment as the second hand swept her into the history books.

"Go Daisy! Go!" they shouted.

With a final effort that drove the fans to jumping and hooting, Daisy sent a spray of sand flying into the forward-crushing crowd. Then, silence, as the final measurement was read.

Six-and-one-half inches, proclaimed the referee. Truly, a superlative excavation for a feline ferret, barely 6-months-old at that. And bested only by an albino brute named Slinky, nearly twice her size.

"She likes to dig in the ivy," said Daisy's owner, 15-year-old Ron Taylor from Mount Vernon, proud yet slightly crestfallen. "She loves tangly vines."

Incredible as it may sound, Daisy went straight from the digging contest in the Frolic's sand-filled wash tub to place a stunning third in the ferret foot race.

Despite yesterday's heat and the attraction of football on home video, nearly 100 ferret fanciers gathered in a dusty corral of Briary Farms. And they brought their ferrets, those slinky mink-like creatures, who bellied into the dirt at the end of tiny harndesses and generally refused to perform in the hot sun.

For most of these people, professionals, blue-collar workers, pet enthusiasts and wide-eyed youngsters -- organized aptly as the Ferret Fanciers of Virginia -- ferrets have emerged in all their furriness as the ideal pet. Yesterday fanciers turned out with armfuls of them to proclaim their conversion.

"People look at us strange," said Becky Kennedy, an administrative officer for the Environmental Protection Administration. "Unless they have a ferret. Then they know. Then they're on the inside."

Better than a dog, ferrets are, they claim. "Not so much work," says one owner. Superior to a cat, too. "Unlike a cat, when you're with 'em, they want to be with you. They like people. They really do."

And to think that, had it not been for Kathi Radford, ferrets might have remained foreign to Northern Virginia's pet-loving living rooms.

Radford, the 24-year old owner of an Alexandria pet store, chanced upon ferrets accidentally when a customer found one chasing cats near his apartment building and brought it in two years ago. Since then, Radford has sold nearly 200 of the gentle creatures. Most of the folks frolicking in Mount Vernon yesterday were her customers.

The star of the show is Saturday, the store's mascot, who gambols about the store's fish tanks and leaps at squeaky toys with the abandon of a 2-year-old.

Saturday is a complete failure in competition. The veterinarian's scalpel took away his manhood. "But boy," says Radford" can he sell ferrets."

Ever the optimist, Radford kept her smile and her enthusiasm despite yesterday's setbacks. In the digging competition, most of the ferrets were taken more by the sweet smiles of the youthful audience than by the prospect of making holes in the sand. In the second event, engineered to find the ferret fastest at climbing a log to claim a squeaky toy, the logs had to be placed on their sides for lack of enthusiasm by the ferrets. An elaborate playground of interconnecting pipes failed to rouse ferret spirits. Most just stuck their noses in and retreated. f

"It must be the heat," one owner sighed, as her faithful ferret sipped soda from a can at ground level.

Frodo, offered as the group's candidate for president, fell asleep in his cage. Another fell into a sneezing fit early on, was sent to the showers and a rest in the cedar chips. After a miserable showing in the digging competition, Yoda was declared to be "saving himself for the main event."

And 7-year-old Christopher Tonstad from Alexandria buried his head in his mother's lap after a finger-prodding exploration of one ferret cage resulted in a toothy surprise.

"I think each one will get better," said Radford as the beauty contest was about to begin. "We're thinking about two a year and a really high class show."

With that, Saturday tucked his head into a warm lap and fell asleep.