The question before the Maryland Racing Commission may have seemed trivial: would Laurel Race Course be allowed to raise the price of its program from 50 cents to $1? But the hearing in Baltimore yesterday attracted horsemen, track officials, and top executives of the Daily Racing Form, who recognized that this was the first salvo in what may become a nationwide battle.

When its season opens next month, Laurel wants to publish a program similar to those at harness tracks, which provide past performances of all the entrants, instead of the bare-bones format that is traditional in thoroughbred programs. The concept is a direct challenge to the virtual monopoly that the Racing Form has enjoyed for years over the dissemination of past-performance information.

The commission's reaction to the Laurel request was ambivalent. It denied permission to increase the program cost to $1, because this would be unfair to the track's customers. But the members allowed Laurel to publish past performances, feeling that they had no right to do otherwise.

After the meeting, track officials were leaning toward publishing two types of programs daily: the new style, with entries and past performances, for $1; and the commission-mandated old style for 50 cents.

Thus, the battle is joined. It began about 1 1/2 years ago, when Jack Cohen, the publisher of a New York racing paper called Sports Eye, decided to mount a national challenge to the Form. Sports Eye was, and still is, primarily oriented to harness racing, and its past performances are so superior to those in harness programs that it became an indispensable tool for serious New York bettors. But Cohen wasn't content with his local success. He started hiring people to go to thoroughbred tracks across the country and compile race charts, so that he would have data for past performances comparable to the Racing Form's--and the ammunition to challenge them head on.

"We knew they wouldn't take kindly to it," Cohen said. "But our opinion is that they've overpriced themselves; two out of three people at the track don't buy the Form. We hoped we could capture a good part of the market." But in addition to envisioning a national newspaper that could rival the Form, Cohen said, "We always had the concept of a program in mind, too."

When Laurel officials approached him with their idea he was naturally receptive. Ken Schertle, Laurel vice president and general manager, reasoned this way: the past performances are a key product of the racing industry, but one over which the track has no control. Laurel can't control the price of the Racing Form and has nothing to say about its distribution. The track can't even find out how many copies the Form sells on its premises. So why shouldn't the track offer past-performance information directly to its customers?

Laurel argued that a $1 program would be a benefit to its customers, who must now pay $1.75 for a Racing Form as well as 50 cents for a program. The Sports Eye past performances would contain only a horse's last eight races (instead of the Racing Form's 10), and no workout listings (instead of the Form's workout information, which is often unreliable), but most people would feel comfortable handicapping from the new program.

However, the Racing Form remains the bible of the sport, and no serious horseplayer can live without it. For Laurel to require the outlay of $1 for the program plus $1.75 for the Form, Commissioner William Furey said, "We thought they would be imposing on any kind of semiserious fan."

The other objection raised to the new program was the fact that the scratch time for races would have to be 3 p.m. the day before, to allow time for the program to be printed. Horsemen objected that this would inconvenience them--with their protests being quoted at length in Wednesday's issue of the Racing Form--but the commission ruled that deciding the scratch time was basically the track's business.

So when Laurel opens on Sept. 14, racing fans will find themselves in a rare can't-lose position. They can buy the Form and program as usual, or they can save money buying the Laurel-produced past performances. They can also have the satisfaction of knowing that the Daily Racing Form, whose unique position has helped it become the highest-priced daily newspaper in America, is about to get a little competition.