Now the "horses" swing into the final turn. The race for a National Football League expansion franchise moves toward the homestretch. Baltimore is going to be a decisive winner. Take a ticket on it.
Finishing up the track, trailing the leaders, are Memphis, Tenn., a loser again, and Jacksonville, Fla. Following Baltimore in the run for the goal (or is it gold?) line will be St. Louis and Charlotte, which is going to be deeply disappointed in the final analysis, considering all the preparation it has done.
So, in this hypothesis, the NFL is going to restore teams to two cities, Baltimore and St. Louis, that never should have been permitted to relocate elsewhere -- to Indianapolis and Phoenix. Here's why Baltimore, as of today, is leading the way:
* The absolute best financial deal for stadium rental, including guaranteed sellouts for 10 years, as assured by the Greater Baltimore Committee in conjunction with the business community.
* A can't-miss opportunity for the Baltimore team owner and visiting clubs to make more money here than they can by playing anywhere else.
* An in-place plan for a new 70,000-seat stadium, possibly domed, that already has been given approval by the state legislature, signed by the governor and is free of any challenge or legal encumbrance.
* Availability of Memorial Stadium as a temporary home for a football team until the downtown facility is constructed.
* Proximity to Washington, Philadelphia and New York -- which makes travel more economical for teams, via bus rather than airlines, and reduces TV/radio line charges.
* That three separate groups of owners, headed by Tom Clancy, Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Malcolm Glazer, have expressed a desire to obtain a new team. This has been a positive signal, recognized by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, as a plus and not a minus in that it indicates the enormous
enthusiasm prevalent in Baltimore for the NFL.
* A TV market that is 21st in the country and a marketing area that shows greater numbers and a higher rate of average income than exists in any non-league city.
* Payback time. The league, with all its affluence and success, realizes how Baltimore was plundered of a team under the cover of darkness, as a thief in the night. That losing a franchise -- which it held for 35 years -- could happen in such a way is a
despicable stigma for the NFL and the righteous reputation it prefers to project.
* Commissioner Tagliabue, with a residence in Potomac, served as the league's leading attorney in 1984, the year of the Colts' defection. Tagliabue was personally involved in settling the case out of court and was a part of the process when Baltimore withdrew intentions to bring a lawsuit and, at the same time, refrained from invoking congressional pressure.
* That Baltimore was involved in so many epic games, the details of which are etched in the history of the league, plus the fact it sent 10 of its former players and a coach to enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
* The way Baltimore has responded to the Orioles and a new downtown park that, even though flawed in some aspects, is drawing attention and sellout crowds that will total more than 3 million attendance for the season. If it can happen in baseball, then it will in football, too.
During the last six months, such respected publications as The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and USA Today proclaimed St. Louis and Charlotte as the pace-setters. But they now are backing away from the boldness of such a projection and "discovering" Baltimore's bid for the imposing one it is.
In truth, there has never been a preferential list, only what sportswriters perceived. Charlotte has Jerry Richardson, the former Colts wide receiver and eminently successful business leader, as a likely franchise owner. Richardson makes Charlotte easy to like. Without him and marketing whiz kid Max Muhleman, it's doubtful if Charlotte would be in the chase.
Baltimore, from the outset of the expansion effort, has been a serious contender with no reason to doubt its presence. Baltimore, as it deserves to be, will be in the winner's circle.