Laurel Race Course today begins a 76-day meeting that may be the best in its history.

With higher purses, a stronger horse population, a rebuilt racing strip and more temperate racing dates, Laurel should offer a better caliber of racing than Maryland horseplayers are accustomed to.

The track's premier attractions are, as usual, the Selima Stakes on Oct. 20, the Laurel Futurity on Oct. 27, and the Washington, D.C. International on Nov. 10. The Selima and the Futurity probably will settle the country's 2-year-old championships.

The $200,000 International conceivably could lure Spectacular Bid or Affirmed (or, if the prayers of John Schapiro, the track president, were answered, both) to prove that they can run on the grass.

But the major changes at Laurel will be in the day-to-day programs. The track is offering $6 million in purses, a substantial increase over last year, and that money will have a noticeable effect.

"I had more stall applications than last year and a little better quality," said the racing secretary, Lou Raffetto Jr. "Most of our stakes are increased from $40,000 to $50,000, and that makes a difference. And it's pretty easy to convince a guy to ship in for an allowance race with an $18,000 purse."

Today's card is more suggestive of Belmont Park than a Maryland track. The featured $50,000 Congressional Handicap has drawn an evenly matched field of 16 grass runners, half of them invaders from New York. The main contenders appear to be John Henry, Alias Smith and Golden Reserve. There are three other strong allowance races on the program.

Post time is 1 p.m. Laurel's management is attempting to lure customers by offering free admission to the grandstand.

Besides the improved quality of competition, Laurel will unveil a slightly different race track today.

Sand and clay were added to the base of the track to make it firmer, and thus silence some of the horsemen who have been criticizing it for years. A finer grade of sand was used for the cushion, and because fine material holds moisture better, the track can be packed down more easily. Running times ought to be rather fast today.