"What is happening here," said John Finney, who runs the Saratoga Yearling Sales, "is a bit like Las Vegas. All the people are putting their quarters into the one-armed bandits, and then six guys come amongst them, sit down at the table and start playing with thousand-dollar chips."

In fact, what happened at the Keenland Yearling Sale last month, and what will happen when the Saratoga auctions begin Tuesday night, is far more dramatic. The peasants -- the counterparts of the people dropping coins into the slot machines -- are millionaires and multimillionaires. The big players come to the game with wealth that stag-[WORD ILLEGIBLE]

Even though the yearling sales always have attracted and been known for conspicuous displays of money, the nature of the game has changed dramatically in the last year or so. Until recently there was only one man, Robert Sangster, who came to the sales determined to buy the best American pedigrees, almost regardless of cost. "Now," said Finney, "there are six sharks in the fishbowl, and any time two of them hook up you've got a million-dollar yearling."

The players sitting at the elite gambling table include:

Sheikh Mohammand bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who heads an oil-rich group from the United Arab Emirated, Clad in designer[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] entourage flew into Lexington, Ky., in their private Boeing 727 jet and bought $6.5 million worth of horses in two days. "I consider a fine horse is a fine thing to have," the Sheikh told the press.

Khaled Abdulla, who like Sheikh Mohammand, decided a few years ago to convert some petrodollars into horseflesh.Abdulla bought a major stud farm in England, operates a growing stable and spent more than $4 million at Keeneland.

Stavros Niarchos, a Greek shipping mag-[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] a quarter-century, but in the last few years has been attempting to assemble a powerful stable of worldwide scope.

Jose Sahagun, a powerful industrialist and oilman in Venezuela. He is developing Villa Blance, a breeding farm in Lexington, and bought $2.6 million worth of yearlings at Keeneland.

Sangster, who made his fortune operating the British soccer pools, the man who started all this madness.

In the early 1970s, Sangster made a perception that was as simple as it was brilliant and unfashionable: high-priced, well-bred yearlings were really cheap. While prudent American buyers shook their heads at the[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] dollars for untested 1-year-old horses, Sangster knew a tremendous worldwide demand existed for the best American pedigrees. "There were horses here that he first would have paid $800,000 for," Finney said, "but he bought them for $300,000 because nobody made him run."

Sangster's most successful purchases made him millions; and he managed to bail out on the bad horses because there was such a demand for their bloodlines.

Inevitably, what Sangster was doing attracted attention, and imitation. It especially appealed to the Arabs, for a lot of reasons. First, of course, they had an abundance of money. They come from lands with great equine traditions; the modernday thoroughbred is, after all, a descendant of the Arabians.

"They all take a tremendous interest," said Humphrey Cottrell, an English bloodstock agent who advises and represents Abdulla. "They are very keen and enthusiastic. They are definitely here to stay."

The new high rollers have come to this game not only with incalculable wealth, but with a spirit different from the American buyers who dominated the sales in the 1960s. In those days, nobody wanted to look foolishly extravagant. Paul Mellon didn't want Jock Whitney thinking he'd paid too much for a horse. But now, Finney said, "the peer-group factor is to an extent reversed."

The Arabs come into the auctions with a great sense of face; they don't want to be outbid for a horse they want. Sangster has ruled the roost so long that he doesn't want to surrender his supremacy, even if he has to pay much more for horses than he used to. "There are very few self-made billionaires who did it without a fair degree of ego," Finney said. And when these rich men interact, the chemistry can somtimes be explosive.

At Keeneland, Sangster, Niarchos and Sheik Muhammand all wanted the same Northern Dancer colt, and shattered the all-time record price for a yearling before they even got warmed up. Niarchos finally dropped out of the bidding at $3 million. Sheik Muhammand went to $3.4 million and Sangster finally got the colt for $3.5 million.

Not to be denied, Sheik Muhammand bought another Northern Dancer colt minutes later for $3.3 million. Then Niarchos purchased his own Northern Dancer yearling for $2.95 million.

Now these men or their agents have reassembled at Saratoga. It is safe to assume that none of their acquisitiveness, competitiveness or bankroll has diminished.