It's bad enough when policemen or firemen or hospital workers go on strike, but at least such actions affect only property and human life. When race-track employes go on strike, however, every citizen's constitutional right is a serious matter. Many of the nation's horseplayers were facing a deprivation -- or at least some serious inconveniences -- as employes of the American Totalizator Company were threatening to go on strike.

Amtote workers service the ticket-selling equipment at most U.S. race tracks, and their three-year contract with the Towson, Md., company expired at midnight tonight. If they put up picket lines, and mutuel clerks honor them, tracks will be forced either to use substitute personnel or shut down.

Washington-area tracks probably will not be affected. Mutuel clerks at Bowie have a no-strike clause in their contract, and their union has ordered them not to strike in sympathy. Track General Manager Al Karwacki said today that management personnel could fill the jobs of the nine Amtote employes.

Charles Town's mutuel employes, too, have a no-strike clause in their contract.

At other tracks, such as Aqueduct, the situation is more serious.

"We may not have wagering on Saturday," said Robert Ryan, the New York Racing Association's vice president for public relations. "But we'll conduct racing in any event." Ryan assumed that mutuel clerks would honor the Amtote picket lines, and, he said, On the first day we probably couldn't marshal enough substitute workers, but by Sunday we could."

Strikes and other disruptions strike fear into the hearts of bettors, because they can bring about everyone's nightmare: not being able to get a wager down. Most horseplayers can handle out-and-out losses with aplomb, but getting shut out on a winner is an experience that can haunt a gambler for years.

This happened to New Yorker Paul Cornman when mutuel employes staged a four-day walkout at Belmont Park in 1977. Off Tract Betting was handling all the Belmont action; no windows were in operation at the track.

On the way to Belmont, Paul stopped at a neighborhood OTB parlor to place his wagers for the day. Shortly after arriving at the track, he bumped into one of his most trusted backstretch sources.

The source whispered to him, "Laz get the bet down because of the stike, all Corman could do was stare at the blank tote board and watch the colt run. His name was Affrimed. The future Kentucky Derby winner paid $29 to win that day.