When Richard White, a Washington attorney, started racing a small stable at Charles Town a few years ago, he figured that with a little luck and a little sagacity he might manage to make a little profit.

But White has been forced to alter that opinion, drastically. Even though his claiming horses have won their share of races, he said, "The only economically sound thing for me to do would be to take them out and shoot them." Like every other owner at the West Virginia track, White is a victim of the harsh economic realities that could trigger a strike by horsemen in the near future and may doom the track in the long run.

Owners of higher-quality horses can dream of striking a bonanza by finding a Spectacular Bid in their barn; such a possibility justifies their investment in the game. But for an owner of an animal like Princess Mattapani, there can be no dreams of glory.

The 7-year-old mare runs in White's colors in rock-bottom claiming races at Charles Town, but the owner finds himself in a can't-win situation. "My trainer, Lee Couchenour, charges $16 a day -- $112 a week," he said. "That's a standard price, and he makes zero on it. In addition, you've got the costs of the blacksmith and vet. Every time she runs you have to pay $10 to get her taken to the post. If she wins, the jockey and trainer get 10 percent of the purse. Princess Mattapani needs to earn about $8,000 in a year to break even."

And even the most optimistic owner cannot realistically hope for that. Princess Mattapani typically runs in races that carry a purse of $2,000 paying $1,200 to the winner and $400 to the second-place finisher. "To break even," White said, "she's got to win five races and place in five races, and that's a pipe dream. Open the Racing Form any time and you'll see pages of horses who haven't been able to win one race in a year."

Many horses at Charles Town are so infirm they can't even get to the post 10 times a year, let alone finish first or second that many times. Princess Mattapani was laid up with an injury for part of last year, and managed to earn $3,400 during 1980.

Some owners can withstand such losses, but many horsemen at Charles Town cannot. They view their fight to get higher purses as a life-or-death struggle.

The track and the horsemen had urged the West Virginia legislature to pass a bill that would reduce the state's cut of the pari-mutuel betting from 5 3/4 percent to 4 percent during six warm-weather months and to 3 percent the rest of the year. Much of the money would go to purses.

"We've sponsored something similar in the last four years," lamented Fendall Clagett, head of the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, "and each time it's bogged down.Last year it passed the House of Representatives and bogged down in the Senate Finance Committee. This year it got through the Senate and bogged down in the House Finance Committee."

When the bill stalled this year, horsemen at Charles Town and Waterford Park in Chester voted to stage a boycott, starting on or about April 27, that would shut down both race tracks. They hoped to force the legislature to reconsider the racing bill in a special session that will be held in the next two or three weeks. Then Gov. Jay Rockefeller told the horsemen and track owners that he would meet with them next week if they would agree to postpone the boycott, which the Charles Town horsemen agreed to yesterday and which the Waterford horsemen are expected to do today. But he indicated to Don Hudson, Charles Town's general manager, that the legislature probably still would take no further action on the bill.

That would hardly be surprising, since West Virginia's politicians have for years been oblivious to the health of the racing industry that provides them millions of dollars of tax revenue. So Charles Town's horsemen will be left with two choices: strike, and lose money; or keep racing, and lose money.