Seconds before the start of the first race at Laurel, a friendly tiff erupted among the folks gathered at the track's front rail. The argument was over the horses: Which was a bum and which was a winner?

Glen McNeil, a shaggy-haired, unemployed Baltimore machinist, assured the railbird next to him that Stormy Squire would win because horses named Stormy always finish first.

A Navy captain, resplendent in a dark blue uniform, turned around and touted a beast called Flamingo's Monk.

But a drunken old guy in dark shades seemed to overule everyone. He kept waving his arms and barking that Private Night was the horse to beat.

In the end very few of the spectators were proven right, for at the track it's the nature of things for most of the people to be wrong most of the time. For the record, a horse called Foggy Bottom swept to victory and McNeil, for one, was downright offended.

"Foggy Bottom!" he stammered, as the bettors returned to their programs to search for clues to the second race. "Who'd ever bet on a bum called Foggy Bottom?"

Welcome to Laurel Race Course, home of the hunch, where unemployed blue-collar workers and the elderly on fixed incomes hobnob on weekdays with lawyers and bureaucrats playing hooky from work. Huddling shoulder to shoulder, mostly strangers to each other, people at the track share smokes, notes and drinks, and trade equine tales of woe and elation, miles from the workaday world of Baltimore and Washington.

If Damon Runyon were alive and chose to live in the nation's capital, he probably would spend most of his autumn and winter afternoons at the 1 1/8-mile oval abutting Rte. 198 in Laurel. There, at least, old guys and dolls survive.

It's a boisterous place where the down-and-outs in rumpled clothes rub elbows with men in pin-striped suits, where posters at betting windows warn vistors that "Pickpockets Love Your Money" and where the aromas of coffee, whiskey and cigar smoke mingle with odors of clam chowder, fried fish and hot dogs.

In Laurel's cavernous grandstand you can get anything from a haircut at the Track Barber Shop and chili at Harry M's to aspirin and antacid, the latter dispensed by a gum-chewing, white-haired man in a red jacket who holds forth near the men's rest room, accepting tips for small favors.

If you're a regular, you know people like Odessia Stein, a retired dressmaker from Alexandria, who bets her favorite numbers, three and six, each race, and Jack Carter, a 66-year-old retired hack with long, gray hair who peddles his bicycle 24 miles each day to get to the track from his College Park home.

It is, Carter says, "a matter of creative expression" to be there. "Look around you," he commands. "You see lame people, rich people, bums. What other place in the world can you find a bunch like this hooping and hollering together except at a race track? There's life here."

And there's Johnny Roypen, a skinny 74-year-old Baltimore dude in a dark shirt and white tie who still talks about the time he was "a hoofer" in Washingon in the 1930's, giving dance lessons at Dupont Circle.

"Why am I here? Well, I've been coming here all my life, haven't I?" Roypen growled, with a brown cigar jutting from the corner of his mouth. "What else would I do with Social Security? Sit in front of a TV all day? I'd be bored to tears, fella. Ya gotta do something to occupy your mind."

It seems that the recession hardly has made a dent in the brisk business that goes on at Laurel, whose 71st racing season ends today. (The fans will hardly miss a bet, however. Many of them will merely move down the road a few miles on Monday to Bowie.) Since Laurel's 1982 season opened last October, 485,936 enthusiasts have wagered $65,940,038--both figures up 1 1/2 percent over the previous year--going into the final day.

"That's one thing we're pleased about," said Joe Kelly, the track publicist. "The recession isn't really hurting us. Most of our regular customers are older people and what seems to appeal to them is that the track is a safe place to go. It's a kind of free and breezy atmosphere here, where they don't have to worry about crooks or purse-snatchings."

"Basically," he said, "the track exists for people to have fun. There's no bother here."

The regulars, known as railbirds, include the jovial, dark-haired Navy captain who liked Flamingo's Monk in the first race and pleaded with a visitor not to record his name for fear that his wife "would slit my throat if she knew I was here."

They also include Joe Decerbo, an unemployed Baltimore steelworker, who comes to Laurel a couple of times a week with his wife Chris, her son, 7-year-old Gregory, and "a jug of vodka and orange juice.

"We don't have a whole lot to spend anyway, so we don't bet that much," Decerbo said. "Mainly, we come just for the thrill."

Since 1911 people have been gathering at Laurel, a race course with a history as colorful as its bettors. For the past 31 years the track has hosted the D.C. International, an annual derby made up of horses from around the world. Over the years, that race has attracted everyone from Morroccan princes to Gen. Omar Bradley. In 1963 the Soviets proudly entered two horses in the race, sired, they said, at Moscow Horse Factory Number 33.

That same year a nurse, in her first visit to a race track, made news with a remarkable streak of betting luck, hitting half a dozen winners in a row. She did it, she claimed, by looking the horses right in their eyes and psychoanalyzing them.

The track also has witnessed a number of astonishing thefts. In 1958 an unknown character in a "dirty cap and blue flannel coat" grabbed a box containing $2,300 from a betting cage while a teller's back was turned, and disappeared into a Saturday crowd. Six years later, a 250-pound safe containing $11,000 disappeared from a track kitchen without a trace.

A Baltimore woman who was smacked in the head by a waiter's serving tray was awarded $5,000 in personal injury by a jury in 1957, and in 1972 a horse named Arrowhead threw her jockey just before the start of a race, jumped a fence and galloped several hundred yards onto Rt. 198, where she was killed by a truck.

But mostly, Laurel has been the scene of simpler human snafus, such as the time in 1969 when track announcer Ralph Retler, believing his microphone was off, glanced at a pack of horses parading to the post and exclaimed, "You could clock these bums with a calendar."

Two years later, in an effort to boost attendance, track officials promised to admit free any woman appearing in a bikini, and to give a season pass to anyone "who comes to the track riding an elephant or an albino donkey."

There were no takers.

Over the years, one thing has remained constant at Laurel: The rhythm of the track. Nine races are run every day and, for each of those 1 1/2 minute-periods, the crowd spills out to the rail. As the race ensues, the track resounds with the cheers and roars of thousands.

Then, at the end of each race, the bettors return to the interior of the grandstand amid the litter of discarded betting stubs to congratulate each other, or curse their luck, and to consider the entrants in the next contest.

Sometimes Onie Green, a Southeast Washington woman who works as a concessionaire at a shop called Fin and Wings, is asked by customers to pick a winner. She herself never bets however, because, as she says, "scared money never wins and mine is definitely scared."

Some of the spectators, such as Jack Carter, the retired cab driver, are thinking men, guided in their betting choices by a trainer or owner or a horse's past performance. Others, like Carl Messerschmidt, a 69-year-old retired Air Force engineer, are "hunch men," who judge an animal by his looks.

"Biggest thrill I ever had in my life was betting on a dog called Flashy Pal," Messerschmidt said, grinning and scratching his crewcut. "It was 1945 at a dog track in Florida. Mutt damn near fell asleep on the way to the post, but I just knew he was saving his energy."

"I had $6 to my name, and bet it all on him. And darn if that boy didn't come through," he says, his blue eyes twinkling with gaiety. "Paid $1,140 on a $6 bet."

"What did you do with the money?" someone asks.

"Bet it," Messerschmidt replies, still laughing, "and lost every damn cent except my bus fare home."

At Laurel, democracy lives in a pure and aboriginal form, with each man and woman enjoying and expressing convictions. Everyone is equal, as least as far as picking horses is concerned.

During a race the other day, a snapshot of the railbirds would have shown a dapper fellow in a gray three-piece suit bellowing encouragement to a horse while carressing a string of blue rosary beads.

Next to him was an elderly woman in a brown woolen coat, her face a study in meloncholy as her favorite slipped behind. Not far away was a black teenager, a Daily Racing Form rolled up in his fist, while behind him, clutching a thin wad of dollar bills, stood a derelict in wrinkled clothes with two shopping bags at his side.

When the race ended, several losing bettors filled the air with angry shouts of "Fix, fix!"--an oath heard at the race track as often as "Kill the umpire!" is heard at the ball park.

Moments later, as the jockeys returned to the "Long Walk," a narrow, open walkway leading from the track to the locker room, there commenced the race track's version of a town meeting, in which the crowd and jockeys banter back and forth about the race.

"Great ride, baby, great ride," a man, clearly a winner, shouted down at one passing jockey, who waved his fist in the air in reply.

"You're a goddam bum, Byrnes," another man, apparently a loser, called to jockey Dave Byrnes as he strode by in a set of pink and yellow silks.

Byrnes, his face caked with brown dirt from the track, didn't hesitate to respond. Before disappearing into the locker room to change for the next race, he replied loudly and clearly: "So's your mother."