After tending bar for 14 years, Joe McKay got the shot he wanted. He announced last call and started peddling jockeys.

McKay, 32, had become enchanted by the racetrack when he was 14, which had a way of causing certain conflicts with an inflexible class schedule at Carroll High School. He claims others shared his plight, and that at Laurel he still sees the old Carroll instructors he used to see there on weekdays.

McKay finished high school at Wilson and said his English teacher there allowed him to write a paper on how to beat the races. "I got an A on the term paper but lost money at the track," he said yesterday. "It was a hell of an education."

He's had a new philosophy since he became a jockey's agent last fall -- first for Mary Wiley and now for Frank Douglas -- a move not overwhelmingly popular with his family. "My grandmother . . . said all I did was bet slow horses and chase fast women," he said. "They all think I'm nuts to be out here, but they always thought I was nuts anyway."

The task of securing mounts brings an agent 25 percent of a rider's earnings, which for McKay hasn't been great. He said he and Wiley parted after three months because of resistance toward female riders, whereupon he took Douglas's book.

Douglas, a journeyman, was at the height of his career two years ago when he broke an arm in a spill at Laurel. The meeting's second leading rider at the time, he since has labored to become re-established.

He is ranked 19th for the meet that began Sept. 20, and this year has won only six of 90. But Douglas has gotten good mileage out of questionable equipment; despite only a 6.7 percent victory rate in 1991, a $2 win bet on each of his mounts would have brought a profit of $23.20. His winners have returned $77.20, $53, $34.60, $20.20, $11.80 and $6.40.

"You live day by day here. It's not what you did a month ago, it's what you did yesterday and what you did for them this morning," McKay said. "You have to get on the good horse -- that's the bottom line. We keep trying. I think the fact that I worked as a bartender helps me deal with people."