Timonium is a throwback to another era. That is its chief virtue and, at the same time, its curse.

The track's setting in the midst of the Maryland State Fair evokes a time before thoroughbred racing was conducted in large, efficient betting factories, before the main criterion for a racetrack's existence was the amount of revenue it could generate.

Where else can you spend the time between races consuming gigantic pit-beef sandwiches, or fried dough, or Italian sausages piled high with onions? At what other racetrack can you pay a visit to Zoma the Deranged ("with bone-crushing reptiles wrapped around her body," the sideshow barker assured passers-by). Where else can you try to salvage a losing day at the mutuel windows by taking home a big kewpie doll?

Timonium is quaint and charming, all right. But the harsh realities of the thoroughbred business dictate that it can no longer occupy a major place on the Maryland racing schedule.

Racing in the state used to be filled with meetings at half-mile tracks: Marlboro, Hagerstown, Bel Air. Now Timonium is the only one left, and it is an anomaly. For 45 weeks, Maryland offers major-league, mile-track racing; then for seven weeks it goes minor league.

Hardcore horseplayers may be able to tolerate Timonium's lack of amenities, its cinderblock walls and dirty concrete floors. But the top trainers in the state aren't so tolerant; while Timonium operates, they have no place to run many of their horses. This gap in the schedule is so costly to horsemen that some of them have talked about pulling out of Maryland entirely if something isn't done about Timonium.

Never has the horsemen's antipathy to the little track been so clear as it has this summer. There are plenty of horses in the state, and there is no longer a Delaware Park to siphon them away from Maryland. But trainers aren't entering them at Timonium, and as a result the quality of the racing there has been atrocious. Tuesday there were four five-horse fields, and in some of them, two were hopeless bums.

Nobody likes racing like this; a horseplayer might have found more excitement wandering out to the fairgrounds to attend a demonstration on "How to De-Bug Your Landscape." As a result the track's business hasn't been good. Last Sunday, both Charles Town and Freestate Raceway had bigger handles than Timonium. To the politicians who have the power to decide Timonium's future, this is a persuasive argument.

In the coming months there will be more wrangling in Annapolis and in the state's racing industry about what should be done with Timonium, but most likely the track will be permitted to conduct races for only the 10 days that the Maryland State Fair operates; the other 32 days on its racing schedule will be transferred to the mile tracks. Certainly, that is the most logical solution. Maryland horseplayers will be spared too many days of low-quality racing, but we'll still get to eat the fried dough and renew acquaintances with Zoma the Deranged.