In the 1940s, Robert Saunders Dowst was writing the only reputable books on handicapping, though by modern-day standards they were rather shallow and unsophisticated. Remarkably, Dowst acknowledged his shortcomings, as well as those of his audience.

"The reason for a real lack of turf literature in this country is quite obvious," he wrote. "The man most apt to become interested in betting is exactly the sort that one never sees within two miles of a bookstore. The kind I have in mind already has a book, a paper-covered dream book or a pamphlet on astrology he found in a race train. Since very few race-players are of a studious nature, very few analytical works ever get published."

Dowst would have been amazed if he had attended an event here last week that was billed as the first National Conference on Thoroughbred Handicapping. The gathering of some 250 horseplayers demonstrated just how dramatically the nature of the American racing fan has changed in recent years.

The conference was set up by James Quinn, a Ph.D. whose professional credentials are in the field of education but whose passion is handicapping. He put together a three-day program of lectures and symposiums conducted by experts on every major aspect of the game, speed handicapping, trip handicapping, horses' physical appearance, the relationship of pedigree to performance. "I wasn't quite sure what to expect, what kind of people we were going to get," Quinn said. "But I was amazed by the results."

I thought I had known what to expect: bettors who were looking for simple systems, neat lists of handicapping rules. Before delivering a lecture on speed handicapping and such arcana as the construction of parallel-time charts and the limitations of the par-figure method, I thought it was necessary to remind the audience that there are no shortcuts to success at the track. As it turned out, this admonition wasn't necessary. In fact, one woman complained that my presentation was too simplistic. "I know all that stuff," she said. "But I am having trouble with my parallel-time chart for a mile and three-eighths."

It was a serious group. "I thought I was going to be in the midst of a bunch of Damon Runyon characters," said a lawyer from San Francisco. "But most of the other people were professional people, lawyers and doctors."

And computer whizzes. Everybody seemed enthralled by the possibilities of applying computer technology to the handicapping process. George Kaywood, a horseplayer from Omaha, brought along his Commodore Vic-20 computer and was punching buttons to display how the machine calculated speed figures for Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track. Three men said that they had been working together full-time to develop a program that will beat the races, and that they weren't going to set foot in a racetrack until they had mastered it. (After 18 months, they have still not seen a horse.)

In contrast to horseplayers of previous generations, modern horseplayers understand that they won't beat the game with hunches or tips; they need information. But as they attempt to acquire the information they need, they keep running into one great obstacle: the attitude of the racing industry toward them.

No state except California has rules that insure accurate reporting of workouts.

No track shows its customers the vital head-on films of races that the stewards use. The reason: fans would be constantly second-guessing the stewards because they don't have the sophistication to understand what constitutes a foul and what doesn't.

Many tracks, including those in California, won't tell their customers which horses are being given legal drugs, even though this can be vital handicapping information. Santa Anita officials say this information would "confuse" the public.

Back in Robert Dowst's era, racing officials might have been right. The average horseplayer wasn't sophisticated. But as the National Conference on Handicapping clearly demonstrated, modern horseplayers constitute a new breed. They have made playing the races a serious undertaking, and they deserve the respect of the racetracks they patronize.