Horse racing returned to Laurel yesterday, but the meet-opening card became a cat-and-mouse affair. One trainer risked a fast horse in a claiming race and got away with it, another didn't, and anyone who bet on either was probably too busy collecting to notice.

Big Pride later won the $60,000 Politely Stakes somewhat anticlimactically, with nearly half the field withdrawn.

Laurel's summer season unfolded on a hot day that gave way to nuance beginning with the third race, when trainer Ben Perkins Jr. gambled by putting Catillating in a $20,000 claiming race, his first for "a tag." The 3-year-old colt won the race by nearly 11 lengths -- going seven furlongs in 1:22 2/5, sensational even on a real fast track -- and eluded the clenches of any claim-minded trainers.

"It was the first day of the meet, and we didn't think anybody would take him," said Ben Perkins Sr., the retired trainer who is working in Maryland with his son this summer after years in New Jersey. "We came down here to win."

Catillating paid $9.80, and three races later King Leatherbury tried to sneak Aly's Plea through a $35,000 claiming race with less success. He won the race but lost the horse. Three claim slips were filed, one inaccurately, and Jim Casey won the raffle for the 5-year-old.

Aly's Plea's 6 1/2-furlong run of 1:16 missed the track record by one-fifth of a second, and left Leatherbury wondering whether he let the horse go too cheaply.

"He's a runner, and you always worry more about losing a runner over an average horse because he's the kind that can come back and haunt you," said Leatherbury, Maryland's perennial leading trainer. "He's not that sound a horse, and we'd run him over his head the last two times, so we figured it'd be best to drop him. But {$35,000} might have been too low; {$50,000} probably would have been better.

"It tells you one thing -- there's money in Maryland now. There used to be two claims for $35,000 in a year; now there's two going in in one race. Everybody wants to play the game."

Aly's Plea is known to have his problems, but Casey came away with a proven racehorse who's won 11 of 36 starts and nearly $170,000.

In the featured Politely Stakes, reduced to six Maryland-bred fillies after four dropped out, Big Pride left the gate slowest and still won by 2 1/2 lengths. She erased the early deficit within a quarter-mile -- circling past front-running Love Me A Lot and St. Haven at the far turn with no urging from Herb McCauley -- and did not allow favored Saratoga Spark to get close in the stretch. Saratoga Spark had a half-length on third-place Brilliant Brass, her stablemate.

A Sonny Hine-trained 3-year-old who has raced primarily in Florida, Big Pride paid $5 with her fourth stakes victory. She sped six furlongs in 1:10 1/5. Get With the Program

Beginning today, Laurel and Pimlico will charge $1 for newly expanded programs. The programs, which include condensed statistics of horses' past two races, have drawn mixed reviews. . . .

Wind Splitter had the fastest five-furlong workout Wednesday at Rockingham Park, going in :59 2/5 under Edgar Prado. The Maryland-based 4-year-old is one of the early favorites in Sunday's $100,000 Father's Day Handicap.

Fighting Notion arrived at Thistledown and drew Post 1 for Saturday's $300,000 Ohio Derby, which Laurel and Pimlico will simulcast. Fifteen 3-year-olds were entered in the nine-furlong race, including Restless Con, Shot Gun Scott and Real Cash. . . .

Kim Believes It gave Michael Blocklin his first career victory as a trainer yesterday in the fifth race.