Racing officials and fans have suspected for the last year that the illegal drug Sublimaze was being widely used at American tracks. Testing in Florida now is showing how common the use was, and how potent the drug is.

Twenty-two horses from seven stables who ran at Calder Race Course from mid-October through early December were found to have Sublimaze in their urine specimens. All 22 finished first or second.

The trainers of these horses probably thought they were safe in using the drug, because at the time there was no way to test for Sublimaze. But the state racing laboratory was freezing and saving urine samples that seemed suspicious, in anticipation of the time that a test for the drug would be developed.

When chemists in Illinois and Colorado devised the test, Florida began checking the old samples, and racing in the state has been thrown into a turmoil. So far, all of the "positives" for Sublimaze have come on horses from lesser stables, but thousands of plastic containers stored in he state lab's freezers remain to be tested.

At the time that Sublimaze was a subject of race-track gossip and guesswork, few people knew just how effective the drug was. Scientists said it was at least 50 times more potent than morphine, but just how did this translate into an effect on a horse's racing performance? A look at the past performances of the horses who received the drug at Calder provides some answers.

The Gladiator is a 5-year-old horse worth about $4,000, endowed with high speed and little stamina. When trainer Ohayneo Reyes ran him on hay and oats on Nov. 18, he tired and finished six furlongs in 1:13 1/5.

On Nov. 29, when tests would later reveal that he was racing on Sublimaze, he ran away from his rivals in 1:11 3/5 -- an eight-length improvement and a performance worthy of $15,000 company.

The Gladiator won his next start, too, and was claimed from Reyes by an unsuspecting trainer. He promptly lost by 19 lengths, and had not won since.

Jungle Scholar was a $7,500 animal in mid-November when trainer Adrienne Moore claimed him for that price. He did not remain a $7,500 horse for long. With the assistance of Sublimaze, he won his first start for his new stable for $10,000, and later stepped up successfully to $15,000. Since Florida has been testing for Sublimaze, he has not been able to win for $5,000.

To Marylanders, these roller-coaster cycles in form probably sound almost normal. Performances that defy logic are commonplace, at least for horses from certain strong stables, and suspicious souls think drugs must be the reason. But Maryland horseplayers will never find out which horses were given Sublimaze.

Maryland started testing for the drug in early January. Thomas Lomangino, the state chemist, said yesterday, "We have had no findings of Sublimaze." This is hardly surprising. By January everybody knew that a test for Sublimaze existed, and no trainer in his right mind would have used it. Maryland was merely locking the barn door after the horse had escaped.

Unlike Florida, Maryland does not freeze and save urine specimens so it can catch illegal drug users retroactively.

"Saving urine samples is a regular procedure with us," said Dr. Wayne Duer, Dlorida's racing chemist, "and I think it has to be a deterrent. The saving of samples is the only technically feasible way to guard against drugging."