When Laurel's stewards gave trainer Dick Dutrow a 10-day suspension last week, their action might suggest that they enforce the rules of racing strictly and impartially-even against one of the most successful, powerful horsemen in the state.

That impression is false. The stewards' gesture was a hollow one that merely camouflaged their inability or unwillingness to deal with Maryland's powerful trainers when more serious violations are involved.

Dutrow's offense was hardly heinous. On Nov. 24 he entered Early Double in the ninth race at Laurel and declared that the gelding would be given the drug Butazolidin. Because of a slip-up by a stable employe. Early Double did not get the medication and his postrace urinalysis disclosed the oversight to the stewards.

If Early Double had performed poorly. Dutrow might have been suspected of running him hot and cold, with dishonest intentions. But Early Double won the race anyway. Nobody was cheated. Dutrow has appealed the suspension, feeling that it was too harsh for a relatively minor offense.

It may seem curious that the stewards chose to make an issue over a relatively minor matter when they might have confronted so many others instead. The explanation is that the big Maryland trainers have so much power that Maryland trainers have so much power that they can operate outside the rules, and the stewards can do little more than administer an occasional ceremonial slap on the wrist, as they did to Dutrow.

Dutrow, Buddy Delp and King Leatherbury practically own a partnership in the Maryland racing industry. The state and the tracks depend heavily on their vast stables so they can put on nine races a day. They need the Big Three as much as the Big Three need Maryland. That puts the trainers in a significant position of power.

Five years ago, a new drug called Lasix made its way onto the backstretch of the Maryland tracks. John Tammaro, a member of what was then the Big Four, was the first to use it, and one by one the other trainers followed him. It was easy to tell when a trainer had begun to employ the drug: his horses started waking up immediately and dramatically.

The use of Lasix was then permitted in very limited circumstances when a horse's health demanded it.

Faced with such blatant abuse of the rules, the stewards did nothing. On the backstretch it was widely believed that the big trainers had the green light to use Lasix, while smalltimers did not. Finally the Maryland Racing Commission made the ultimate capitulation and okayed the wide-open use of the drug. Instead of punishing the wrongdoers, it had sanctioned their wrongdoing.

In those days, Dutrow, Delp and Leatherbury were fierce and often bitter rivals. But they came to realize-just as corporations who dominate an industry invariably do-that their best interests lay in cooperation rather than competition. This year it appears they have cooperated. And in the process they have thumbed their noses at the stewards, the public and the rules of racing.

Maryland's rules specify that "no person shall enter into an agreement to claim or not to claim . . . any horse in a claiming race." This is no mere technicality. The claiming system is crucial to the sport's honesty and competitiveness. A trainer will rarely enter a legitimate $20,000 animal in a $16,000 claiming race because he knows that one of his rivals probably will take the horse for the bargain price.

When Dutrow Delp and Leatherbury were claiming each other's horses frequently they had to run horses for their legitimate value in races where they had no great edge. But for the last year they have not been taking horses from each other-although this is probably a tacit agreement, rather than a deal struck in a smoke-filled room.

Now the Big Three can enter a $20,000 horse in a $16,000 race, running only a small risk that the animal will be claimed by one of the lesser stables in Maryland. This gives them a tremendous edge over the trainers who have to run their horses for what they are worth.

I once suggested to Leatherbury that he, Delp and Dutrow were engaged in a united effort of sorts and he replied that every trainer has friends and colleagues from whom he would not claim horses. Such a handsoff policy represents race track etiquette, not dishonesty. True.

But when the "friends" happen to be the three dominant trainers in the state, it is a bit like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler saying that they don't undercut each other's prices because they're such good pals.

This apparent arrangement is unfair and patently illegal and not within the framework of racing, and everybody knows it, including, presumably, the stewards. But they simply won't do anything about it.