Rene Araya was delivering room service at a Florida hotel last year when he got a call from Richard Koch. With that, Araya began serving hay and oats, and yesterday the trainer earned the biggest tip of his life when Seven Lords won the Northern Wolf Handicap at Laurel.

Seven Lords's brazen stretch run marked another unlikely passage in his wondrous tale. The 6-year-old gelding, who was running against $12,500 claimers in mid-October, won his 17th race in a one-year span and gave Araya the first stakes victory of his disjointed career. Seven Lords also denied the mighty Fire Plug his 27th win overall with a half-length triumph that returned $22.60.

His six-furlong spree in 1:10 was worth $32,700 and completed a profitable day for Marco Castaneda, who won the $75,000 Goss L. Stryker Stakes aboard Haymaker two races earlier. Translated, it was a $7,700 payday for the veteran.

Araya, a former Maryland jockey agent and trainer, was coaxed back to the backstretch after Koch bought Seven Lords privately for $19,000 last July. The gelding had won some races, but two screws in a foreleg left his stable questioning his potential. They're still pondering now, but for all the right reasons.

"In almost every one of his races, we've asked ourselves going in if we were asking too much of him," Koch said. "And every race, when he came back he wasn't tired at all. So we just kept taking the next step."

In outgrowing the claiming ranks, Seven Lords won six races late in 1990 to finish the year with 15 victories, second in the nation to Jilsie's Gigalo (17). He began 1991 with a second-place finish in an allowance race, then sprinted to an allowance win that gave Koch and Araya the gumption to try the $54,500 Northern Wolf.

Of the eight principals, Seven Lords was the only one without a stakes victory. Moreover, he was trying a field that included Flaming Emperor, Star Touch and Fire Plug, the latter of whom had won 26 of 47 against more competent runners. The 5-2 cofavorite, Fire Plug made a late thrust toward Seven Lords after the leader circled past three others in the stretch, but his progress was stunted momentarily when he was wedged between Pulverizing and Flaming Emperor. Fire Plug plowed through them and edged away from Pulverizing.

Donnie Miller Jr., the rider of Pulverizing, claimed foul against Santos Chavez and Fire Plug. But the stewards stayed the order of finish.

The outcome was a triumph of sorts for racing secretary Larry Abbundi, who attempts to equalize horses through weight assignment in handicap races; the eight-horse field was separated by about two lengths. Seven Lords carried 113 pounds, second-least of all and seven fewer than Fire Plug.

The compressed finish bore a vivid contrast to the Stryker, in which Haymaker led throughout for a four-length victory and had nearly 30 lengths on the last horse past the wire, Score Thirty Eight.

Forry Cow How, winner the Maryland Juvenile, nosed out A Call to Rise for second.

The 6-5 favorite, Haymaker set fast fractions with his 1 1/16-mile conquest in 1:44 2/5 and left trainer Carlos Garcia with long-range visions of the Preakness Stakes.

Since Haymaker started running with blinkers five races back, he has three wins (two in stakes races), a second and a third.