From his perch in a narrow room high above the Charles Town racetrack, Costy Caras can see for miles. The majestic Blue Ridge Mountains and the tranquil Shenandoah Valley, two reasons why West Virginia bills itself as "almost heaven," stretch out before him, affording a view of spectacular beauty.

But for Caras, the voice of the races, the view is almost an irony. The veteran announcer, who must keep his trained eye fixed on the three-quarter-mile track below him, rarely has time to look out. His job is to look down.

"Eet ees noooow post tiiiime," says Caras, his accent an inimitable mix of Long Island, N.Y., and Greek. "Aaaaaand they're off!"

Downstairs, in the elegant dining room, in the grandstands strewn with betting stubs and on the track itself, thousands of people are hanging on Caras's every word. Their eyes flick back and forth, from the backstretch, where 10 sleek thoroughbreds are rounding the bend, to the infield scoreboard for another glance at the odds.

When the race is over, some are smiling. They rush to the mutuel windows to collect their winnings. Most, however, wear looks ranging from mild irritation to outright disgust. They throw down their racing forms, utter some familiar four-letter words and check their watches. The next race is minutes away.

Three nights and two afternoons a week, the ritual repeats itself at the Charles Town Races, as it has for the past 57 years. The timeworn track, nestled between Routes 9 and 340 about 10 miles west of the Loudoun County line, has neither the size nor prestige of places like Laurel and Baltimore's Pimlico, home of the Preakness. And it almost didn't open this year because of a dispute between its board of directors and the horsemen over the number of days in its season.

But Charles Town is a survivor. The dispute was resolved Dec. 29, in the nick of time for the first races Jan. 1. And in an era when the appeal of betting on horses is widely acknowledged to be declining, the track is making money, turning a seven-figure profit last year for its 13 local owners. Charles Town marketing director W. Douglas Stewart declined to be more specific.

Part of Charles Town's success is because of night racing. While Laurel and Pimlico are active only in the afternoons, the smaller West Virginia track packs in the evening crowds on Monday, Friday and Saturday. And part is because of its almost homelike atmosphere.

If you don't know the difference between a Trifecta and an Exacta (betting on horses is far more complicated than other kinds of gambling), someone will teach you. Come in with a large group for dinner and they will name a race after you. Take the children (Charles Town allows children if they are accompanied by their parents) down to the paddock and the jockeys, covered with mud from the ride, will say hello or answer a quick question or two.

That kind of treatment has kept Edward E. Michtom, who recently moved to West Virginia from Charlottesville, traveling to Charles Town every weekend for as long as he can remember. One day last weekend he sat at his usual corner table in the dining room, one eye on the table's private TV screen (two channels carry the races) and the other on his program.

"You want to find Ed, you go to {table} 88," said Stewart.

"I'm crazy about the Jackpot," the last race of the day in which bettors pick the top four horses, Michtom said.

Does he ever win?

"Oh, yeah!"

Well, how much?

"You mean in dollars and cents? Hell, I don't know!"

Michtom isn't the only person who hasn't been able to get Charles Town out of his system. Caras, the announcer, has been there 28 years, calling the races in his tiny cubicle papered with clippings and photos of his three heroes: actor Telly Savalas, baseball star Reggie Jackson and Pope John Paul II (not necessarily in that order).

"It beats working for a living," said Caras, who also called races for Pimlico and the New York Racing Association.

Besides announcing, Caras picks the favored horses and sets the odds. He does not, however, mix business with pleasure.

"I never bet," he said.

Neither does Bob Via nor Pete Wright, who have been around the track 15 and 13 years, respectively. Via and Wright are reporters for the Daily Racing Form, the bible of parimutuel betting. They sit in Charles Town's press room, the track results on one TV and the Orioles game on another, chain-smoking and typing charts and stories on manual typewriters made in 1940.

"Electric's too slow," Wright said. "I can type three charts on the Underwood in the time it would take to do one on an electric."

Via and Wright are alone in their simplicity. The rest of the track is computerized, from the self-service wagering machines (the bettor's automatic teller) to the massive system that stores data on every bet, every payoff, every set of odds. A system crash here would be disaster.

To make sure that doesn't happen, Charles Town has two backup systems.

"We have a good bit of redundancy" in storing information, said chief computer operator Herb Thompson. "It makes me feel safe."

Stewart said the track, which draws about 750,000 people a year, gets about 45 percent of its attendance from Virginia. He estimated that about 75 percent of Virginians who come to Charles Town are from the metropolitan Washington counties of Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax.

"We're close to {Northern Virginia}," Stewart said. "We're closer than Laurel, we're closer than Pimlico and you don't have to fight that traffic."