An hour past dawn and the barn is cool, sweet and pungent with hay and horses, lit from above by a few bare bulbs. Cobwebs sway from the rafters, silken nets pushed by an unfelt breeze, and below, three fillies and a colt strain at their bits and bob their heads, dancing the dance of thoroughbreds, kicking up spirit and dirt.

"They're starting to look like racehorses now," says Ernie Oare, adjusting his plaid cap to a jauntier angle, the lines at the corners of his eyes wrinkling with smile. The horses are yet youngsters, two-year-olds in training, not long broken to saddle and man. If Oare has his way, they will soon bring handsome prices at sales in New York and Florida and Maryland, and maybe, just maybe, one of them will become a stakes winner, another Native Dancer or Bold Ruler.

For now, they are still the chestnut filly or the big bay colt stabled in Barn 10 at the Middleburg Training Center on Rte. 611, 126 green acres built by millionaire Paul Mellon. For now, they are still the charges of Ernie Oare, the Virginia Horse Show Association's reigning Horseman of the Year.

In the land of training tracks and show rings and white-washed board fences east of the hump-backed Blue Ridge Mountains, Oare is about as involved with horses as they come. He showed horses as a kid and met his wife, Betty, a champion show rider herself, at a horse show, and won the Seven Corners Point-to-Point Championship as a rider in 1973. He sits on the board of stewards of the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association and is the president of the Warrenton Horse show and a chairman of the Virginia Gold Cup race to be held this Saturday.

None of which means that Oare, 40, has a particularly righteous air. Before he got into training he was, among other things, a partner in a Hardee's restaurant in Winchester and an appliance showroom in Warrenton.

"The stereotype of the rich horse people upsets me," Oare will say without prompting. "I pick up the paper and read this stuff about the horsey set in hunt country and it kind of makes me mad. What's written is somewhat true, but all these people aren't wealthy old snobs. There are some who like to have their tailgate parties and eat in the grass with silver, but that's not most. The real thing is the tradition that comes from the real horsemen, the trainers and the riders and the grooms and the exercise boys."

Today, Oare's business is horses. He buys and sells and trains them. He puts together limited partnerships for investors and does some trade in brood mares, which he says is a good investment because they can be depreciated for taxes like production machinery. Right now he's got 23 horses in his stable. He makes a good living, he says, but he is not rich.

He drives a Buick with 89,000 miles on the odometer and a ceramic jockey on the hood. He likes Miller beer in a bottle with a package of beer nuts to go along. He helps his 12-year-old son with science fair projects. His last vacation with his family was spring break in Fort Lauderdale. He goes to the point-to-point races to see the horses, not to be seen himself.

On this morning, as on five other mornings of most every week, Oare is stepping in manure and sticking syringes into equine necks, carrying saddles for his exercise boys, then driving the half-mile or so to the track to watch his horses run and to hang out at the rail with the other trainers, old flat-track hands with tobacco juice at the corners of their lips.

Oare isn't exactly like the other trainers, not exactly as country as LewLew and James and the old rider-turned-trainer who drives a Chevy equipped with hand controls since an accident left him paralyzed. Oare comes from a line of lawyers and financiers from South Bend, Ind., and he never missed a Notre Dame football game in his youth. He went to Deerfield Academy and to the University of North Carolina, where he said the members of his fraternity like to party and he majored in English because it was easy. When he got out he went into business, just as the men in his family had always done, but after nine years, in 1974, he turned to the horses full time.

Now, as his horses trot onto the track, his most important degree is the one he has earned in this dusty outdoor classroom. He spreds his legs wide and crosses his arms. He's checking muscle tone and shoulder slope and condition of coat, things potential buyers will be looking at when it comes time for sale. He buys a good yearling for between $20,000 and $75,000, and with expenses for each horse at about $1,000 a month, he knows the horses will have to bring twice what he paid at the two-year-old auctions to return the 25 or 30 percent profit his investors expect.

"David, push that filly into the bridle, she's getting a little lazy," Oare says to one of his exercise boys, slight and blond and riding a chestnut.

"Should I use the stick on her, Mr. Oare?"

"Yea, she sticks her old nose out and then just plops along. She's such a nice filly, she acts like she doesn't want to be a racehorse. But I'm not trying to raise pets around here."

The boy smacks the horse and they are off in the dust, hooves banging a gallop, and Ernie Oare twitches a bit about the shoulders, as if his muscles are recalling the power that pulls the arms and makes the fingers tighten around leather as a wind-fast filly takes a turn along the rail.

And here again he adjusts his cap and his eyes wrinkle with smile, for though he is watching, he is participating too, and he says, "That kid out there galloping that horse, these guys here against the rail, those grooms back at the barn mucking out the stalls. They are the real live horsey set. And I can tell you right now, not one of them has a butler." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Veteran trainer Ernie Oare, looks over the field at the Middleburg Training Center. Three of the thoroughbreds he is training show their speed at the track. Their performance is checked against his stopwatch. He buys a good yearling for $20,000 to $75,000, and expects the horse to bring twice what he paid to return a 25 percent profit. Picture 4, Ernie Oare teaches young horses about racetrack starting gates at Middleburg Training Center. Photos by Larry Morris -- The Washington Post