It was the first heat of the 12th annual Turtle Derby yesterday at Clearwater Nature Center in Clinton, and Winnie was facing off against Speedy and Bolt in the struggle to cover the distance.

Which was about 10 feet.

From the center of a red ring to the edge.

Alas, Speedy wasn't, and Bolt didn't, so Winnie won.

All day, in fact, turtles competed by withdrawing into their shells, staring into space or, at best, creeping ever so slowly toward the finish line. In short, by being turtles.

"Speedy was traumatized by our dog," explained Todd Deibler, of Accokeek, whose two sons, Tyler 5, and Torry, 4, brought turtles. The dog, it seems, had picked up Speedy in the back yard.

On this day, nearly 100 people--young couples, senior citizens, a Temple Hills Boy Scout troop, screaming children--showed up to compete or cheer.

Some "jockeys" went home jubilant, with gold, silver and bronze medals, while the non-victorious left with cookies, certificates and a greater appreciation for the official pet of the state of Maryland.

"This is the race for the medals, just like in the Kentucky Derby," said Lisa Bierer-Garrett, an official with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Daniel and Mary Alice Bonomo, of Accokeek, said they wanted their daughters, Rebecca, 4, and Meghan, 6, to have fun with animals they found in the woods.

For Dina, Ari and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, of Greenbelt, the event was the slow-moving equivalent to the Preakness.

"This is a big turtle family," said racing mom Judy Goldberg-Strassler, whose children came to the event with four turtles: Ben, Benny, Abbie and Tzav, which is the Hebrew word for turtle.

Robert, the family's dad, said, "We have state permits to have turtles. To keep more than one, you have to have a permit."

Bobby Garren, 52, of Hyattsville, said he brought a turtle to the race because he has loved them for years. Garren left the nature center with two medals in the 11-year-old and up category, but others weren't so lucky.

"Come on, Stony! Come on, buddy!" screamed Lloyd Braham, 45, of Clinton, who was yelling louder than his son Michael, 12, and members of Boy Scout Troop 1958 from Church of the Redeemer United Methodist Church in Temple Hills.

"Come on, Stony, you the man! You the man!"

Stony was the man in his heat but not in the finals.

Bierer-Garrett, park naturalist for the Clearwater Nature Center, said the event helps highlight a serious decline in the turtle population in many states, including Maryland, because commercial dealers have increased their shipments to Europe and Japan.

According to the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union, 81,233 box turtles worth $494,845 were exported from the United States from 1990 to 1993.

Bierer-Garrett said the exports might be one of the reasons for the decline in the number of derby entries from 100 a few years ago to 18 this year. That is why she urged the competitors to release their pets to the wilds, after the racing was completed.

"No matter how much you love them, turtles cannot reproduce in your house," Bierer-Garrett said.

When it was over, most packed up their reptiles and drove away. But Daniel Bonomo had an impromptu family meeting. Then he said his girls had one stop to make going home.

"We are going to let Winnie go where we found her," he said.

CAPTION: Dylan Meushaw, 8, jumps for joy as his turtle crosses the finish line to win a gold medal in the Turtle Derby at Clearwater Nature Center in Clinton.

CAPTION: Beth Wisotzkey marks a reptilian entrant with a number as it registers for the 12th annual derby.