In the old days, jockey Donnie Miller would have reacted differently. Head down, eyes fixed on the finish line, he would have kept pressing his horse, even after he had lurched inside and bumped the second-place horse at the head of the stretch.

But on a mild December day at Laurel Race Course, Miller quickly brought King's Leap back outside, straightened him and rode out a third-place finish.

Although bettors might have viewed Miller's tactic as a poor effort to win the race and racing stewards nonetheless ordered an inquiry for the brief contact, Miller's move was an example of his ongoing transition from sometimes reckless winner to recognizable champion.

Inquiries and objections are not new for Miller. Since he began riding races in the fall of 1980, he has received seven suspensions--five in 1981, two last year. In large part, they have come because of what stewards called careless riding.

"In the beginning, I was riding eight and nine races a day, so there were plenty of chances to make a mistake," said Miller, who nevertheless quickly established--and has maintained--an impressive winning percentage. "I'd be so anxious to try to win, win, win, that I sometimes forgot there were other horses out there.

"After a while, I really got paranoid. I heard that the stewards were quick to take down bug (apprentice) riders, so I was able to rationalize it a little better. But it got to the point where every time there was an inquiry or an objection, I thought it was against me."

Times have changed. Results have not. Miller is no longer perceived as a better-get-out-of-my-way type who endangers other riders. Jockeys fear him not for his riding style but for his success.

At 19, Miller is once again the leading rider at Laurel and the country's third-leading jockey, trailing Pat Day, who rides in Louisiana, and New York's Angel Cordero by about 15 victories.

"I'm learning all the time," said Miller. "I'm paying attention to track biases, to wind conditions, to what's going on in a race besides with my own horse.

"I look back at (the suspensions) and I realize they really helped me a lot; they showed me I needed more control," Miller said. "I'm much more careful because of them. Before, if I was in traffic late in a race and my horse started to drift, I'd go ahead and try to win the race anyway. I'd try to press him and just hope he'd straighten out.

"A lot of times he wouldn't. I'd be suspended the next week, when I could have had between eight and 10 winners. I found out that it gets pretty costly."

Especially when you're winning. Since the spring of 1981, Miller has led all jockeys in victories for every meet in which he's participated regularly, with the exception of last winter's Bowie meet, when a one-week suspension enabled veteran jockey Bill Passmore to finish one victory ahead of him.

Miller's success came suddenly. Helped by his father, a jockey turned trainer, Miller, who is from Jessup, Md., began galloping horses at 14 and had such a good background that he immediately began winning races when he started riding professionally. In 1981 he won more races than any other apprentice in the nation.

"The fact that Donnie was so successful when he first started riding is amazing," said Gordon Becraft, Miller's agent. "He couldn't even cross his reins back then. His ability was questionable to me; it took us a couple of weeks of talking before I agreed to become his agent . . . He improved more than anyone could have possibly realized."

"I really noticed a big improvement in Donnie last fall, when I got hurt," said Passmore, who suffered a fractured pelvis in a spill at Bowie and was sidelined more than three months. "When I came back, there was a different Donnie Miller out there. He was getting on better quality stock and was more confident because of it."

Now that Miller has a verbal agreement to ride for Ron Alfano, one of two dominant trainers in Maryland, he is riding plenty of quality horses. It is one major reason why Miller has remained in Maryland, rather than trying for the larger purses in New York or California.

"We have so much going for us here that it doesn't make sense to leave," said Becraft. "Winning has become so easy, it's almost frightening. Donnie is a better all-around jockey now--more cautious, more disciplined."

Becraft was right about that race at Laurel, when Miller sacrificed a chance to win the race to avoid disqualification or worse. The stewards found the contact between horses to be inconsequential to the outcome of the race.

Miller could breathe easier.