Ray Stifano is a convicted felon; he has been branded as an "undesirable" by a number of racetracks; he is the subject of a grand-jury investigation. Possibly he should never have been given a license to train thoroughbred racehorses. But the way the Maryland tracks have attempted to put him out of business makes a mockery of justice.

Stifano trained the now-notorious colt, Dr. Peatoppy, who raced under the name of a different horse, Sun Dandy, at Bowie and Pimlico earlier this year. Whether this was deliberate or an accident (as much logic suggests) is uncertain. But racing officials in Pennsylvania and Maryland have said, in essence, that they don't care; they have found Stifano guilty and just about passed the sentence.

The trainer's problems date back to 1968, when he was convicted of receiving stolen property--$64,000 worth of women's clothing that had been taken from a truck in Massachusetts. He received a suspended sentence, and only four years later he was given his trainer's license back by the stewards at Narragansett Park (which was never known as a bastion of probity). Having been licensed in one state, he got fairly routine approval to practice in others, although racetrack security people continued to keep a wary and disapproving eye on him.

If Stifano had been Mr. Clean all his life, the Dr. Peatoppy-Sun Dandy mixup probably would have been a forgotten incident by now, because there were few reasons to doubt his insistence that this was an innocent mistake. He said the two animals were sent to him from New England with name tags on their halters, but the tags proved to be reversed. The identifier at the Maryland tracks was not doing his job--checking the lip tattoos of the horses to verify who they were. So Dr. Peatoppy, a $12,000 horse, ran under the name of Sun Dandy, a bad $4,000 horse, three times until a substitute identifier discovered what had been happening.

"Ringers"--horses who compete under the names of inferior horses--have figured in some of the sport's most notorious scandals. But when Dr. Peatoppy ran, he did not appear to be the vehicle for an illicit betting coup. If a person runs a ringer, he will presumably do it once, get the money and then get rid of the incriminating evidence. He would be unlikely to run the horse three times and triple the risk of detection.

The first time Dr. Peatoppy ran under the wrong identity, he went off at odds of 99 to 1, which would suggest that no insiders (or anybody else) were betting him. After he finished a decent third, his form was exposed. Any horseplayer could handicap him and bet him on the basis of that performance. The public knew as much about his capabilities as insiders could have, and so when Dr. Peatoppy won his next two starts the victories hardly had the look of a betting coup.

But Dr. Peatoppy was bet heavily when he won; bookmakers around the country received heavy wagering on him. This action might have come from handicappers who liked his recent race, or it might have come from insiders who knew his real identity. Regardless, it was this betting, coupled with Stifano's past record, that prompted the grand-jury probe.

The investigators are looking into whether Stifano may have discovered Dr. Peatoppy's identity after he had run the horse once, but having seen how easy it was to get past the lax identifier he decided to run him again--and again.

This, however, is all conjecture. But when Stifano applied for a permanent license to train horses in Pennsylvania, that state denied his application and revoked his temporary license. Last Friday, Stifano was granted a court-ordered stay of that decision pending a hearing today in Pennsylvania to appeal the revocation. Since the stay, he has been been allowed on the grounds at Laurel.

The decision to revoke his Pennsylvania license supposedly was based on the old felony conviction, but it seems likely that the real reason was the Dr. Peatoppy affair.

When the Pennsylvania decision was announced, he was ejected from Laurel, since racing officials regularly honor suspensions or disciplinary action imposed in another state. It didn't matter to the Laurel stewards that their action was wholly unfair.

Maryland had already licensed Stifano with full knowledge of his past felony conviction; to bar him because Pennsylvania disapproved of that 14-year-old offense makes no sense. To put him out of business on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicions about the Dr. Peatoppy incident is unfairer still. And it would be an absolute travesty if Maryland officials bar the trainer because Pennsylvania officials may have harbored suspicions about something that happened in Maryland.

If it is proved that Stifano did knowingly run Dr. Peatoppy under a false identity he should be run out of the sport. But not until then.