In 1905, American tracks began to offer races in which each entrant was on sale for the same price tag. The system may have seemed a bit odd, but it quickly took hold, and for three-quarters of a century claiming races have helped make the thoroughbred sport honest, fair and competitive.

In 1979, at Laurel Race Course, the system broke down. Or, rather, Maryland's principal trainers dismantled it. By doing so, they insured their own supremacy at the expense of the small-time horsemen in the state.

Claiming races effectively force trainers to enter their horses at a realistic level. A man with a $7,500 animal probably won't enter him for $5,000 because some other trainer will take him; he won't enter the horse in a $10,000 event where he will be over-matched. He will put the horse in a $7,500 race against other $7,500 horses.

No more efficient system has ever been devised for determining who races against whom. Harness tracks offer few claiming events and instead attach complex conditions of eligibility to most races. That sport has too-frequent mismatches, where one horse clearly towers over the competition and goes to the post at an unbettably short price. These one-sided farces almost never occur in thoroughbred claiming races.

The claiming system does depend on one assumption: that if a man runs a horse for less money than he is worth, some other trainer will claim the animal. In a competitive, capitalist society, this should be automatic. In Maryland, it isn't.

About three years ago, Maryland's three dominant trainers -- King Leatherbury, Dick Dutrow and Bud Delp -- evidently realized that it would be in their mutual interest to stop claiming horses from each other.

Once their rivalry had been fierce. But if they didn't have to worry about each other's claims, they all could often get away with running horses for less money than they were worth. One day Leatherbury might run a legitimate $20,000 for $16,000 and win; the next day Delp might put a $10,000 animal in an $8,000 race and win. It was all very chummy.

Still, there were enough medium-sized trainers who would claim the Big Three's horses. Or at least there used to be. At Laurel this fall, the big Three's hands-off policy has seemingly become the policy of every major trainer.

Seven trainers currently operate stables with 30 or more horses in Maryland. This fall, there has only been one claim among these seven men. (That happened on Wednesday, when King Leatherbury claimed a $6,250 claimer from H. Steward Mitchell.

The hands-off policy involves more than the seven biggest trainers. The medium-sized operators play the same game, too. All the successful, established trainers claim principally from the small-time operators on the Maryland racing circuit.

At Laurel, for example, second-ranked trainer Ron Alfano has claimed four horses -- from Jeffrey Gilleas, Sandra Stancer, Billy Henry and Budd Lepman. None of them ranks among the top dozen trainers at the track.

Why doesn't he claim from the big boys?

"We don't have any agreements" Alfano said. He explained that he hasn't claimed many horses at all this fall because the coming ban on Butazolidin makes any claim a chancy proposition. But he said he feels he is more likely to improve on a horse he takes from a lesser outfit than one who has already been receiving top care from a Dutrow or Leatherbury.

This may be true, but Alfano made his first big splash in the training business by claiming a horse from Leatherbury. Similarly, Dutrow made his reputation by taking horses from Delp. They only have come to show such reverence for their fellow leading trainers since joining The Establishment.

The spirit of cooperation among the successful trainers help them stay successful.

They can enter their horses in favorable spots with impunity. But small trainers, knowing the big boys are watching them closely, usually have to enter horses over their heads in order to protect them.

Racing Secretary Lou Raffetto Jr. sees this phenomenon every day. "You take a little guy with a horse who's just run second for $6,250," Raffetto said. "Another $6,250 race comes up and he says, 'I can't run my horse there; I'll lose him.' So he runs him for $8,000." And usually gets beat.

The hands-off policy does not only work to the detriment of small trainers. It hurts the sport as a whole, making races less interesting and competitive than they ought to be. The principal trouble with Maryland racing is that it often seems so boring and tiresome. The same few trainers dominate the game year after year. The same groups of horses run against each other week after week.

There is a far more serious threat to the game implied in these tacit agreements on claiming horses. The integrity of racing depends on genuine competition among all the parties involved in the sport.