A solitary figure shuffles through the darkness, a presence lost but to himself and a shed row of horses, the members of whom feign indifference. It's barely 5 a.m. when he reaches the long, rectangular barn at Pimlico Race Course. The roosters haven't even begun to crow.

Grooms often are the first to bring flickers of life to the backstretch. Water buckets are dumped, washed and filled. A creaky spigot turns and another day begins to flow.

At Laurel, Pimlico and Bowie race courses -- Maryland's three principal thoroughbred training tracks -- more than 1,200 men and women will handle the state's top thoroughbreds this day, many millions of dollars worth. Trainers employ these workers -- grooms, exercise riders and hotwalkers who range from diligent to lazy, devoted to uncaring, lucid to feeble.

Some of these workers find the backstretch, with its lax hiring requirements, the last place that will accept them; some do it for the love of horses. They're anonymous figures, but without them there would be no racing.

After dozens of interviews over two months, The Washington Post will attempt in the next two days to present a picture of the often difficult lives of the people behind the scenes who make up the so-called "backstretch" of Maryland racing.

"We do all the work," said Benjamin "Short Man" Harris, who has groomed horses for nearly 50 years, "and watch somebody else get all the credit."

The groom is a horse's servant. He or she feeds him, bathes him, brushes him, cleans his stall, checks for heat and swelling in the legs, bandages him, walks him to the races, tends to him afterward.

"Hollers at 'em, screams at 'em, sings to 'em, spoils 'em," said Harris, who had his teeth kicked out by a horse in 1961. "All them horses I rub, I can go in that stall in the morning and tell if something's wrong with 'em without even laying a hand on 'em. You can look at 'em, if you know your horse, and tell."

A talented groom might manage four horses at a time and earn up to $500 a week (although no trainer will admit to paying that much), plus a 1 percent share of their horses' earnings. Exercise riders can do even better if they hustle, but more realistic figures are $300 and $350, respectively. Hotwalkers make about $150.

The hours are grueling, days off scarce, and it gets tougher once winter takes hold. Harris, 63, gets to trainer Jim Simpson's barn at 5:15, and if one of his horses should be in the last race at Pimlico, he won't return to Laurel until 8 at night.

"The hours are long, but . . . the hardest thing on the racetrack is getting up in the morning," Harris said. "Especially when you been out on a drunk. Me, I never drank on the backside. How many folks can say that?"

Drinking long has been a reality of backstretch life. When Robert "Gate" Sullivan fled Hagerstown in 1939 for Bowie Race Course, track dormitories offered no heat. Men would circle trash barrels of burning wood to keep warm, beer or whiskey at hand. Now, he says, "Drugs are taking over everything." A New Generation

Gambling abuse also is widespread, and with those problems come beliefs that the devoted stablehand is dying. Veterans of the backstretch, trainers included, say the new generation is largely blind to commitment, stripped of dedication. There were always itinerants, they say, but many held the racehorse sacred wherever they surfaced. That's not always the case anymore, and trainers bemoan the consequences.

"When I first came around, those old grooms, they'd tell you, they'd show you -- just one time," said Aquilla "Cocky" Johnson, now the Pimlico stable manager. "If you didn't pick it up, you were gone. We took pride. Grooms used to compete with each other in those days -- whose horse looked the best, whose laundry was the cleanest on the line, who's brass shined brightest on the shank."

One recent morning, trainer John DiNatale was forced to walk his horses because a hotwalker failed to show. "I've been through four or five hotwalkers the past five months," said DiNatale, who runs a 10-horse stable with his wife, Judy. "The whole racetrack is like that. If I were older and not able to do the physical work, I'd have to get out of the business."

At age 22, Charlie Hadry Jr. understands the machinations of the backstretch. As a teen-ager, he spent many a morning working in his father's stable, and after graduating from high school lived a year on the backstretch. Last September, he took over his own stable, training horses for Meeting House Farm, a well-known Maryland racing stable.

Hadry inherited the staff, as well. "When I first started, I put them all in a corner and told them, 'This is how I want it done,' " Hadry said. Today, not one of them remains.

Monty Weinstein, a 58-year-old hotwalker, believes some trainers perpetuate their employment problems by paying low wages. He also says people forget that backstretch help can be at the mercy of a changing stable.

"One man may have 30 horses one meet and take out 20 of the 30 the next, and then you're looking for another job," he said. "It's a transitional job as well as a transitional business."

Weinstein has a room in one of Pimlico's faded red bunkhouses, right above the stable he works in. The room comes with an electrical outlet, but little else. Hotplates are forbidden, leaving the track kitchen a necessity -- but it generally closes by midafternoon. The nearest bathroom and shower are 50 yards away.

"Nine times out of 10, you wind up cleaning out the shower yourself -- the mold and stuff," said Jaime Williams, who sold his laundromat to become a groom nine years ago.

Weinstein, a gaunt man with a neatly kept salt-and-pepper beard and a pack of cigarettes tucked beneath his red baseball cap, has no car, like most backstretch residents. "I watch TV, listen to music, do some reading," he said. "What the hell else is there for a 58-year-old man? 'A Gypsy's Life'

"This is a tough life. It's a gypsy's life. The backstretch is an everyday function, a routine job, but the full coverage of a day is full of surprises," Weinstein said. "The horses excite me. To me, the challenge is a hard horse to handle. Me and Aly Mar, we went around that shed row fightin' every day. That sumbitch -- he broke my finger and two of my toes. He's my kind of horse."

From 5:30 until 11 in the morning, Weinstein walks round and round the shed row, leading a horse -- or being led. Horses are walked before they go on the track, after they gallop, or just for exercise. The hotwalker always stays to the animal's left, holding the shank right-handed.

Hotwalkers tend to be among the most unreliable of the backstretch personnel. They're paid the least, drift the most.

Illiteracy is rampant on the backstretch, but not pandemic. Some workers are college graduates, although most never completed high school. There are surprising exceptions.

Gina Chamberlin, a hotwalker the past seven years, is an assistant general manager for Howard Johnson Hotels. She took a job with trainer Jack Wheeler to help support her sister and three children.

"It's rare that you stay in one place, especially a hotwalker," said Chamberlin, 40. "There's usually such high turnover. Seven days a week -- that sometimes gets hard."

Women have a secure place among the stables. "If she's good enough with horses, she can go anywhere she wants with them," said Cora Collar, who has been at the racetrack 25 years. "If I worked in a restaurant, I'd have to wear nylons, a uniform, a hair net, and I'd be making the same kind of money. I've run a couple guys off with ball bats, but this is where I want to be. I don't have thousands of dollars to buy a horse. This gives me a chance to be around them."

The lifers do it because they want to, and hope to find "the big horse" along the way. Short Man Harris, the groom with palms the texture of burlap, made it to Churchill Downs when On The Sly reached the 1976 Kentucky Derby and finished fifth.

"That's about the only time you get recognized," he said. "It moves you up. But most the time they don't care about the backside. When you got a big horse, you don't hear 'em talkin' 'bout no groom."

The backstretch renders invisible even its most able and committed artisans. Experienced racegoers will watch a groom lead his horse into the saddling paddock without connecting man and beast.

"Some of 'em back here think of themselves as forgotten people," said Weinstein. "But an intelligent man looks at it and realizes there's no top without a bottom. There's satisfaction in knowing you're a piece of it."

For all its anonymity, the backstretch has a way of seeping in and taking hold. Weinstein left the track as a young man for a more promising career as a machinist, but when automation rendered him expendable some 25 years later, he returned. Johnson, a former groom, spent 10 years running an auto parts store until the lust for fresh air and horses brought his extrication.

The backstretch's requirements are so relentless, so consuming, that inhabitants seldom have the time or inclination to develop outside interests. Horses are what they know, and what they teach their children.

Rick Sillaman learned the business from his father, a former trainer, and has been the envy of Maryland grooms the past five years because he rubs Little Bold John -- Maryland's second-biggest moneymaker ever at $1.8 million. Sillaman worked his way up and now trains a few of his own. At age 29 he has nearly met his potential, and recognized its constraints.

"All my life, I haven't known anything but the backside," he said. "I couldn't do anything else if I tried. I don't have time. That's the nature of the business. Explain to a wife that you can't spend Sunday with her because you have to work all day."

Harris wanted better for his nine kids. "I didn't want 'em back here," he said. "There's nothin' back here for 'em. All you can do is rub some horses and make a little money. I got one who's a nurse, one's a welder, one's on the school board. My son, if he wants to do something on the weekend, he can do it. I've got to run a horse. You know where I'll be. A groom can't plan nothin' on the racetrack."

Except early mornings.

NEXT: Problems on the backstretch.