Excitement was in the air yesterday at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, almost as palpable as the scented calling cards left behind by the main participants in the 2003 Maryland Horse World Expo.

Thousands came to the four-day event to listen to owners, meet caretakers, shop at vending booths and, of course, look at those 150 or so show horses.

The seventh annual Maryland Horse World Expo, which concludes today, offered anything a horse enthusiast could want, except the one thing that's dominating the discourse about horses in Maryland: gambling.

And that's no coincidence: The people who came to the event -- "tens of thousands," according to Denise Parsons, president of Equestrian Promotions Inc., the company that puts on the show -- are horse lovers, "not race people."

"Racing is a very important segment of the horse industry," Parsons said. "It is probably the most publicized segment of the horse industry. But it is just one segment.

"The owners and the politicians have their agendas. . . . Our concern and our agenda is the health and welfare of our animals."

Not that Parsons objected to the racing crowd. "I don't gamble. . . . I also don't play the stock market," she said.

However, some participants and attendees at the Maryland Horse Expo reacted to talk of gambling -- or more specifically, the proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to use revenue from slot machines at four racetracks to help reduce the state's gaping budget deficit -- as if they had stepped in one of those calling cards in their Sunday shoes.

"I think it brings money from the class that needs the money the most -- the poor," said Joyce Doonan, a horse owner from Woodwind Farms in Wytheville. "It preys on their fantasies."

Doonan and the others believe that they are in a different business.

"Selling horses is sort of like selling dreams," she said. "The person has to really want to have a horse."

Doonan, who is also a physician, said, "Horses make you want to slow down in a fast-paced world."

Ed Frazier, a Catonsville resident who stopped by to admire Doonan's horse, Sundancer, said much the same of gambling.

"That's truly different from horses," Frazier said.

Linda Cox, a Potomac resident who was with her two young children, made a distinction, too. "We're horse lovers," Cox said.

"I don't believe in the racing. I don't think the [race] horses are well-treated. They're treated as an object. As a horse lover, I object to that."

While some said they are not fond of racing, they acknowledged that it generates revenue for all involved.

"I guess in a way it's helped the horse industry," said Scott Legg, a farrier from Century Manor Farm in Nokesville.

Still, Legg said, "on the other hand, they tried to put a racetrack next to our farm, and we fought them tooth and nail."

Amanda Compton, a groom from Upperville, said that "when you go to horse shows, there's no gambling whatsoever."

"Most of the people I know are in the horse industry because they love horses," Compton said. "Gamblers are a whole separate crowd."

Event organizer Parsons said the emotional payoff for horse owners is a sure bet of another kind.

"They give you the same satisfaction if you have $2 million or $2," she said.

Romancer reaches over his stall to greet owner Melynda Hurley, who visited him with Sarah Holnquist.Amanda Compton, a groom, admires Edward, a shire stallion, while Chris Titus strokes him. "Gamblers are a whole separate crowd" from horse lovers, she said.