STANTON, Del. -- As slot machine gambling opened at two Delaware race tracks yesterday, Doris Ambrose, 64, and her pal Ethel Martin, 71, both of Baltimore County, squeezed through the gaming area of Delaware Park here and surveyed the mob.
Told the smoky, neon-lighted casino was open only until 2 a.m., Mrs. Ambrose frowned and shook her gray curls. "I like them when they're open all night," she said. "From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. is a great time to play."
The two veteran gamblers were among about 14,000 people expected to descend on just 1,215 machines yesterday, both at this thoroughbred track and at another casino in Dover Downs, a harness track in the state capital.
More than 10,000 people were expected at Delaware Park alone -- about 25 times the number who typically show up for a Friday night of simulcast racing.
Delaware officials hope the whirring, tinkling and chiming machines will earn the money needed to save their ailing horse racing industry. Maryland's politicians and its tracks are also watching, concerned that the slots could siphon bettors out of state.
But for Mrs. Ambrose, a retired phone company worker who lives in Owings Mills, and Mrs. Martin, a former housewife from Timonium, the health of racing was the least of their concerns.
At Delaware Park, the pair had trouble finding a working machine. About a third of the track's 715 slots were malfunctioning. There were long waits for payoffs. One couple complained that they were shortchanged 50 cents on a $10 roll of quarters.
Even after the Baltimore County women found open, working machines, they didn't like them. They were the new, computerized variety, with video screens, a menu of games and rules that were difficult to fathom.
They weren't the only ones complaining.
"I'm going to go over and bet the horses," moaned Al Porter, 30, a construction worker from Bear, Del., who couldn't figure out how his video machine worked. "It's the only thing I understand."
"What's the old saying, 'What can go wrong, will go wrong?'" said Steve Kallens, director of marketing for Delaware Park. He said the president of the track and Delaware state lottery officials, who regulate the slots and get a percentage of the profits, were meeting to discuss the mechanical glitches.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Ambrose and Mrs. Martin sat, in their white walking shoes and sweat suits, pumping quarters into video machines and trying to interpret the spinning numbers and symbols.
Both have grown children. Both are divorced. And both spend most evenings playing bingo together at fire halls and churches. (Mrs. Martin won $1,500 from bingo this week.)
After those games close, they sometimes roar off to Atlantic City in Mrs. Ambrose's red Buick LeSabre and play the quarter slots until sunrise.
When they read about the new slots in Delaware, they figured it would be easier to reach than the Jersey shore. But after spending an hour at Delaware Park, they were out of there.
"When they get the bugs out of it, it might be dandy," said Mrs. Ambrose, trying to be diplomatic.
"They don't pay off like they do in Atlantic City," Mrs. Martin said.
With Mrs. Martin riding shotgun, they headed south to Dover Downs, where Ellsworth Gaskill, general manager of the slots, said only a half-dozen of his 500 machines were out of order.
They --ed over to a couple of old-fashioned slots, without video screens, and in five minutes, Mrs. Ambrose was up $75 while Mrs. Martin was down $20.
Delaware's slots are expected to net $55 million in fiscal 1997. Racetrack owners will get about 62 percent of that money and the state 15 percent. Equipment costs are expected to eat up another 13 percent.
State track associations will receive the remaining 10 percent, and use it to create bigger prizes, or purses, for their races. Those purses are supposed to attract better horses to Delaware races and bigger crowds.
Joseph A. De Francis, president of Maryland's Laurel and Pimlico race courses, fears the slots will hurt attendance at his tracks and wants permission to install the machines.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, though, has vowed to veto any bill that would permit any casino gambling in Maryland this year, including slots at tracks. He left the door open to Delaware-style slots after next year, if Maryland racing suffers.
Mrs. Ambrose and Mrs. Martin say they don't play the horses, so Maryland's tracks won't miss their money.
Would they spend more on the slots now, and less on bingo?
Never, said Mrs. Martin.
D8 "You don't mess with my bingo," warned Mrs. Ambrose.