When Skinner's Neck and Sherwood Hall crossed the finish line together in yesterday's second race at Laurel, many in the crowd of 5,865 debated over which horse had won. Several minutes later, after the three placing judges awarded Skinner's Neck first and a still of the photo finish was shown on track television monitors, debates continued.

On track monitors, the photograph of the finish appeared to show Skinner's Neck and Sherwood Hall crossing the wire together. But the actual print confirmed Skinner's Neck won by the slimmest margin.

The incident called attention to the process by which such close finishes are determined. At Laurel, in a booth atop the grandstand roof, Bob Noelte shoots and develops the photos used for every finish.

When the order of finish is clearly distinguishable, Laurel's placing judges simply post the numbers of the top four horses on the infield tote board without benefit of a photo. However, when horses are separated by a half-length or less, a photo generally is called for, and Noelte projects a negative of the finish from his booth to a white board in the placing judges' stand.

When those projections prove inconclusive, the placing judges request an actual photograph of the finish, as they did for yesterday's second race. A string of piano wire extended vertically serves as the finish line, both on the easel used to develop the photo and on the board in the placing judges' stand.

Noelte, an employee of the American Teletimer Corp. -- not of the race track -- has in his booth two stationary cameras with 280-millimeter lenses (he uses 70mm lenses for dirt races, 210mm for turf). Then, in the pinkish glow provided by a safe light, he can produce a negative of the finish 20 seconds after the race and can print the photograph in about a minute.

Following yesterday's second race, the photograph indicated what the television monitors did not: that 3-to-2 favorite Skinner's Neck, under jockey Ron Franklin, finished a whisker ahead of Sherwood Hall. Ridden by Gregg McCarron, Sherwood Hall was the long shot in the seven-horse field, 17 to 1.

"It couldn't have been any closer without being a dead heat," said one Laurel official. "But it clearly wasn't a dead heat. Television has a way of distorting the actual finish. The image just isn't as sharp as the actual photo."

Joseph Mendes of Baltimore held a worthless $50 win ticket on Sherwood Hall and said, "If the 1 horse {Skinner's Neck} really beat him, fine. But if it ain't clear to the people, then I think you've got a problem."

Triple Crown nominee King's Nest, unraced since August, returned to action yesterday by crushing a solid field of allowance sprinters.

Jockey Craig Perret made a rare appearance in Maryland to ride King's Nest, and it was time well spent. The 1-to-2 favorite, King's Nest ran the final quarter-mile in 24 3/5 seconds to defeat front-running Full Security by seven lengths. He covered six furlongs in 1:11 2/5.

A 3-year-old son of Rollicking, King's Nest was bred and is based in Maryland. But yesterday's performance was his first locally; he broke his maiden at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., last July, then ran fifth to Tejano in his only other career start, the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J.