Laurel Race Course was misidentified as Laurel Raceway in last week's editions of the Maryland Weekly.

When Laurel Raceway was sold in December for $16.1 million, Doris Riley didn't have a thing to do with it. Nobody sought her counsel, nor did she offer it.

But even though the deal went through without her, Riley figures she owns as much of Laurel as anyone.

"At the track you say, 'If you rode, you've been throwed,' " she said, "and when you hit the track, the spot you land on is yours. You own it, forever.

"I've had the girth to break coming out of the gate. I've had the reins break, the bits break. I got hurt so bad in 1963 they pronounced me dead, only I kept moving. I was unconscious 5 1/2 weeks. But I was lucky. Real lucky."

Riley, a tiny, dark-haired woman with a midwestern twang, was an exercise rider in Maryland for 25 years, minus a four-year hiatus after a horse called Thaddeus broke his shoulder, threw her, fell on her and "officially" killed her at Pimlico.

"I've galloped some good horses in my time," she said, "some Kentucky Derby horses. Of course, they didn't win the Derby, but they ran."

Five years ago Riley retired on disability, but the backstretch of a race track had been a home to her for so long, she found "I just couldn't get away from it.

"Being on disability, I can't work," she said, "but I can still ride horses for people if they let me."

So dawn finds her where it always has, on the backstretch.

She is part of the curious patchwork of early rising humanity that makes a race track work, an amalgam that includes the fanciest kind of people and the humblest, from Firestones and Whitneys who own the mounts down to dipsomaniacal characters who "hot-walk" them in exchange for a few dollars for wine.

The track plays host to about 500 working people each morning and 900 horses. They are largely a busy and devoted bunch, very different from the languorous gambling crowd that drifts in on the front side after noon to work the day's racing card from the comfort of the heated grandstand.

"I wouldn't change my job in the world for yours," said Eddie Przybyla, an exercise rider and lead-pony rider in Maryland for 20 years. "Running horses in the morning, that's me," he said. "You're the supreme being. Think about it. You're on 1,000 pounds of dynamite. You've got to have a clear head and a clear conscience. You don't like it. You love it."

Przybyla, decked out in worn, leather chaps, his cheeks red from the morning cold, was rushing through coffee in the backstretch "kitchen." It is a restaurant subsidized by track management where the working people get one of the best square meals in the Washington area for $3.50, and a trencherman's breakfast for even less. While they're dining, they can watch the thoroughbreds whiz by during workouts and the Canada geese land squawking in the infield.

Przybyla said Maryland's 12-month racing season separates backstretch "hard-knockers" from the dilettantes. "If it's not in you," he said, "you're gone when the weather gets bad."

This is the first time in many years Laurel has been open for racing in the dead of winter, but the backstretch crowd has always been active year-round. It takes about 3,000 horses to run the continual meets at the state's three tracks. Barn space and training time are needed at all three to keep the horse population steady.

Horses get free stabling at Laurel, and there are even some rooms, about the same size and not much fancier then the stables, available free for the grooms, who get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to feed the horses.

Everyone else commutes. You get there before dawn and already the horses are prancing, lively, picking their way down to the track for morning workouts. A few are getting their legs bathed, the steam rising eerily in the dark and cold.

The dirt trail to the track runs through the stables, and the jockeys and exercise riders guiding their high-strung mounts along the trail offer greetings to folks they know.

"Hey, boss, how you doing?" calls a rider to one of the track's new co-owners, Bob Manfuso.

Out at the starting gate a crew works with balky young horses, cracking a buggy whip at their feet until they enter the gate willingly.

In the "kitchen" the women heap plates with steaming sausages, eggs and fresh-baked blueberry muffins.

On the track, wild 2-year-olds and aging plugs work side by side, exercise riders snap their riding crops, and a great flock of wild Canada geese makes a final swing before landing.

It's a spectacle.

"It gets in your blood," said Przybyla, "and it doesn't go away."