According to an old race track yard, a horseplayer dies and gets as far as the gates of heaven. He is met by an apologetic St. Peter, who explains that there is no room for him.

St. Peter can offer only one faint hope; if the horseplayer can find anyone willing to leave heaven voluntarily, he may fill that vacancy. So the horseplayer enters on a visitor's pass, goes from cloud to cloud and whispers to their inhabitants, "I hear they're running a 90-day meeting in hell, nine races a day."

Very soon -- as the teller of this story, the late turf writer Joe Palmer, put it -- there was a great rustling of wings, as of bats leaving a cave. St. Peter told the horseplayer that because of this unprecedented rash of departures, he was now free to stay permanently.

"Thanks anyway," the horseplayer said, "but I'm going to hell.There just might be some truth to that rumor."

Trainer Howard Tesher knows that there is more than a grain of allegorical truth in this story. He also knows a lot about rumors, after saddling the hottest horse of the Saratoga meeting last Thursday. The name of his filly, Paddock Calls, was on every tongue that day, and the "smart" money that poured onto her practically short-circuited the tote board.

Paddock Calls had made her racing debut at River Downs, a leaky-proof track near Cincinnati, and had run a creditable second. After that race, Harold Snowden, a prominent Kentucky breeder, bought her and sent her to a training track, where she continued to do well.

Like every Kentuckian, Snowden loves the very thought of cashing a bet, and so he brought Paddock Calls to Saratoga with that purpose in mind. He put the filly in Tesher's care, treating the whole operation in cloak-and-dagger fashion. When Paddock Calls went to the track for training, Snowden put saddle blankets from another stable on her so clockers and other observers wouldn't be able to identify her.

Meanwhile, Snowden was telling all his friends in Kentucky and in Saratoga, "I'm going to be running a good one in the next few days." Tesher watched the whole production with bemused detachment.

"I knew it was going to be a fiasco," he said.

Tesher entered Paddock Calls in a $25,000 maiden claiming race. When he looked at the rest of the names in the field, he saw one he had been waiting for. Warrior's Rose had run only one dismal race last season, but Tesher had been watching her in the mornings, and she had been training beautifully. This might be a betting opportunity.

Hours before the race, the rumors started flying, and at no American track do they fly as swiftly as at Saratoga. This is an intimate place. Gamblers, trainers, owners, jockey agents, and newspapermen all mingle under the elm trees in the paddock, and in such a community stories can travel with the speed of a brush fire.

Snowden's friend had told their friends about Paddock Calls, and they in turn had told their friends, and on and on. When I handicapped the race, saw some merit in her River Downs race and mentioned this to my friend Harvey Pack," he said, "No. 13."

"What" I asked

"You're the 13th person to give me this horse. One more and it will be a new Saratoga record."

Anyone walking through the paddock before the race could hear the murmurings: "Hot horse . . . River Downs . . . smart money . . . betting coup." Tesher heard it all. "Ninety thousand people must have told me stories about the horse," he said.

Tesher debated with himself how to bet the race, and finally decided to play a pair of $100 exactas, combining Paddock Calls with the 31-to-1 shot he liked, Warrior's Rose. While he was betting, the rest of the track was practically storming the windows, knocking the River Downs invader down to an incredible price of 5 to 2.

Paddock Calls broke well and battled for the lead with Warrior's Rose down the backstretch, but the battle was clearly a mismatch. Warrior's Rose pulled away on the turn and opened a commanding lead. Paddock Calls hung in second place for awhile, but finally weakened and finished third. Tesher had not only missed the exacta, he had missed cashing a ticket on the $64.80 winner, having been sucked in by his own spurious hot horse. That might be more painful than leaving heaven on the basis of a bad tip.