Maryland racing fans always have had to travel out of state to see what a first-class track is like. We have felt pangs of envy seeing Hialeah's beauty, Saratoga's charming ambiance, Garden State's architecture, Santa Anita's concern for the public's well-being.

But as of yesterday we ceased to be second-class citizens of the racing world. Now the people who attend the best tracks in America can look with envy on us. The $2 million Sports Palace that opened at Laurel yesterday is brilliant in conception, dazzling in appearance. It's a gambler's dream, and there is nothing like it at any track anywhere. Laurel President Frank DeFrancis said boldly, "I think today we've changed the whole direction in which tracks are headed."

What the Sports Palace looks and feels like is a posh Las Vegas casino. The main room, done in a classy mauve-and-gray color scheme, has table seating for 600 and is dominated by two 15-foot projection television screens that show one of the day's top sporting events (yesterday, the Virginia-Navy football game) and the races. A tote board shows the track odds and an electronic sports ticker flashes up-to-the-minute scores and other information to people with outside wagering interests. (For example: "SYRACUSE AT VIRGINIA TECH, 12:20. OPENING LINE TECH 1. CURRENT LINE TECH 2.) It even shows the betting lines on pro games from a representative sample of four Las Vegas bookmaking establishments.

Four other small seating areas, called mini-theaters, show different sporting events on 45-inch screens.

For serious horseplayers, a bank of computer terminals provides statistics on trainers, jockeys, post positions and other handicapping factors. Although there isn't enough data in the system yet to be very useful now, it has promise. And the videotape library in the Sports Palace has immense value for a serious player. A bettor who wants to see any race run in Maryland since mid-June can request it at a desk, then watch the replay at one of a dozen television screens.

The unique concept of the Sports Palace shows what a unique racetrack president DeFrancis is. Other tracks have spent big sums of money to improve their facilities, but they do it without an evident sense of who their best customers are. The centerpiece of Garden State's $100 million plan is its elegant dining room, with its black-marbled floors, white-gloved waiters and superb food. But who is it for? It's for the garden clubs enjoying a night out and splitting $2 show tickets, not for the serious players.

Lynda O'Dea, DeFrancis' assistant who designed the Sports Palace, said, "What we tried to do was to offer a little style and a little glamor to our serious patrons." Everything about the Sports Palace is designed to appeal specifically to this particular segment of Laurel's clientele.

The admission ($7 on weekends, $6 on weekdays, a $7 minimum at tables) excludes less affluent customers. The absence of a full dining-room menu or a view of the track probably will keep out the garden clubs, but won't faze the hard core. What gambler would bother eating a civilized meal when he is simultaneously worrying about the Double Triple, the Pick Six and Virginia vs. Navy?

The opening-day turnout at the Sports Palace was small -- fewer than 400 patrons. It won't be sparsely populated much longer, not when the word gets out among serious horseplayers, sports bettors and assorted action guys that the Sports Palace is a gambler's version of heaven.