TIMONIUM, MD. -- Other half-mile ovals in Maryland have long since come and gone, yet this venerable course remains, 109 years after it was built. Top jockeys venture elsewhere, vacation and even honeymoon during the track's 10 days of racing, yet each year a new breed of apprentices comes to the fore. This year the first day of racing last Saturday was canceled because of dangerously wet conditions, yet four days later the track was dry and, in the words of one handler, "lightning fast."

Such is life at contradiction-filled Timonium Race Course (actually a five-furlong track) north of Baltimore, a track at a crossroads in its rich history, facing an uncertain future.

The annual Maryland State Fair began Saturday adjacent to the course, thus launching the 10-day season at Timonium. Thoroughbreds used to run 42 days a year here, until money problems and heavy competition from other tracks prompted a paring of the schedule 10 years ago.

"The better trainers and jockeys would leave the state for higher purses," Timonium Vice President and General Manager Max Mosner said. "We couldn't compete with the purses of the mile-long tracks."

Timonium still can't, but the abbreviated schedule helps alleviate the financial pressure. Maintenance remains prohibitive on the rickety concrete-and-steel grandstands -- lacking modern amenities such as air conditioning and escalators -- and the support staff needs to be paid, of course. But Mosner says he cannot complain.

Saturday the jockeys did, however, about the track conditions. It resulted in one fewer day of wages for the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, a 31-member board that runs the track. Four straight days of heavy rains soaked the dirt oval, rendering conditions unfit for racing.

The track had dried at an unequal level, leaving deep puddles in the turns. When the jockeys watched the futility of the tractors and exercise riders in negotiating the track, they refused to ride.

"It was inconsistent and dangerous," jockey Phil Grove said, representing the other riders with his written statement. "There had been so much rain lately that it just washed out."

"I didn't want to push them into anything that was unsafe," Mosner said. "I preferred to cancel the card, so I did."

Over 300 patrons had entered the track grounds by the time the decision was made at 12:15 p.m. and over 700 programs had been sold, Mosner said. He allowed those who had purchased programs to return on any other day of racing. Normally, admission to the fair enables patrons also to enter the track.

Ironically, four hours later, just before a hot air balloon was to be launched in the infield as part of the fair's opening ceremonies, workers reported that the track was entirely dry and allowed patrons to gather on it.

Since Saturday, the track has dried so well it has become almost too fast. Numerous records have been set, and Mosner has added more cushion on the running areas of both straightaways.

"It's almost like the horses are running on cement, it's so fast." handler Rodney Gardner said. Gardner, who has worked the 10-day meeting the past eight years, compares the track favorably with nearby Pimlico (closed for the 10 days), where he works the rest of the year.

"I like it a lot here," he said. "It's a more relaxed atmosphere and there're always great crowds."

Mosner said the level of wagering at Timonium is running about the same as last year, despite the cancellation of opening day. Nonetheless, long hours of negotiation lie ahead -- Mosner has two proposals to study concerning the track's future.

Mosner met with Rosecroft Raceway General Manager Jim Murphy in April to discuss the possibility of live simulcasts of harness races from his facility. One holdup: legislation would have to be passed to authorize Rosecroft intertrack betting. Live thoroughbred racing may have to be dropped at Timonium due to the difficulty of cleaning up after an afternoon card, before harness bettors entered the facility at night.

Also, Edward Hale, owner of Baltimore's Major Indoor Soccer League franchise, the Blast, is interested in constructing a multi-purpose arena seating 20,000 on the grounds, connected to the city by the planned light-rail system.

Mosner emphasized no detailed discussions would take place with either Murphy or Hale until after the 10-day meeting is completed. "There are a lot of plusses and minuses to each side," he said. "We really want to take this one step at a time."

In the meantime, the racing continues, without the top jockeys, many of whom have left the state for the 10 days. Mike Luzzi, who led all riders at Timonium last year, won the national apprentice title in races won in 1989. He's now in Cancun, Mexico, on his honeymoon.

The absence of top jockeys does not faze Mosner: "Our whole focus here is to prepare the {apprentices} for bigger and better things, and to give the crowds a good show."