At Bowie, in the directors' room where they were holding lunch yesterday, they came to testify, one by one, to the affection they have for Odie Clelland, a wisp of a man who got his trainer's license 54 years ago and is still on the active list.

Odie never saddled a Derby winner, never got any piece of a Triple Crown. His name is missing from the list of fancy horse trainers who so often are elevated to a fame exceeding that of their champion steeds who do the running. They call Odie's type a horseman's horseman, and among his friends yesterday it was agreed that Odie, maybe, was one of the greatest trainers who ever lived.

They weren't alluding to the nearly 1,700 winners he has saddled. There were other things about Odie. In a business in which trainer-owner relationships are often turbulent, Clelland has worked for one owner, Isaac McMahon, for 40 years, and another, Peter Fuller, for 20. McMahon came up from Tennessee and Fuller came down from Boston to say awful nice things about Odie.

And from Eddie Arcaro, they heard it on tape, from Miami. "Without Odie Clelland there has been no life for me in racing. He taught a green kid everything I know about race riding."

That's where Odie Clelland could say he is truly famous--as a developer of famous jockeys. Chris McCarron, now a multimillionaire jockey who has been the leading rider in America three times, came in from California to add his bit to Arcaro's praise of Clelland. "Odie found me in Rockingham and taught a scared kid how to ride a racehorse," Chris McCarron said. His brother Gregg, another Clelland discovery, said he loved Odie, too.

To all of which Odie said something that sounded like a down-home "aw shucks." He said, "All I did was show 'em a few things, like how to sit on a horse and get him out of the gate." Clelland said he learned how to leave the gate as a rider himself in the quarter horse races in his native Idaho, "where unless you leave the gate running you ain't in the race."

It was early in his racing career that Odie saw training, not riding, as his best feature in racing. In contrast to Arcaro, who rode those five winners in the Kentucky Derby, Odie didn't do well on his only Derby mount. Rode a horse named Paul Bunyan. Got off slow, running 19th in a big field, and "gradually improved my position to finish 15th, beaten by 23 lengths," he said. "He was a bad actor, that Paul Bunyan, I remember."

Arcaro indicated in a friendly way that Odie was wrong when he said, "he taught me a few things." Arcaro said, "He taught me everything. I lived in Kentucky, but I never saw a race horse until I wandered into Latonia one day, and somebody took me to Odie. I was plenty worried. All those other kids were from Oklahoma or Texas, and had been riding horses all their lives. But Odie had all kinds of patience with me. He showed me then how to break a horse out of the gate. He showed me how to tie the reins, how to cross them, how to change my whip hand, and he shortened my stirrups so I could get a better purchase, more leg power. He was a patient, beautiful man, and I owe everything to him."

Of Arcaro, Odie said, "I remember him, how he came to Latonia and was looking around and acting like he wanted to ride. I looked him over and he looked strong, and willing, and that's what I liked. I told him a few things and he became a rider."

It was different with Chris McCarron, who followed his brother Gregg to Rockingham, where Clelland was racing a string. McCarron recalled yesterday: "Actually, when you put me on a horse, I was scared. Not like my brother . . . who was never scared. But Odie could see it, in my face, I guess, and he took me off that horse and never put me on a horse for three months, until I could get some confidence. He was a lovely, patient man."

Of the McCarrons, Odie said, "I knew I had found a couple of riders."

The tributes kept coming, but there was business to be done at the race track. So, in the best traditions of racing, Milton Feldman, Bowie director of publicity, took to the microphone to wind up the luncheon festivities, and introduce practical matters. "It is 11 minutes to post time for the next race," he said, "and the mutuel windows are now open."