CUMBERLAND - With the push to bring horse racing to Western Maryland set to begin in earnest, an angry band of Allegany County residents pleaded yesterday with their elected officials to block a plan to build a track in their rural community.
"It just seems to me that big money and politics is going to force us to accept this gambling," said George Hartley, a farmer from Little Orleans who was among those asking the county commissioners to stop a track and simulcast betting parlor that could be built next to his property.
Bill Valentine, another staunch opponent of the proposal, urged the commissioners to ask the Maryland Racing Commission to delay a decision on the plan. "We think a letter from you would do good," he said.
In the end, the denunciations of the track proposal may have amounted to little more than a chance to vent emotions. The county commissioners have no direct say about who - if anyone - will get a license to operate a Western Maryland track.
And, if racing officials care to consider their opinion, Commissioner James J. Stakem said there should be no doubt where the county board stands.
"There's no question that we are supporting the horse racing industry in Allegany County," Stakem told the Little Orleans residents.
The hearing was conducted as state racing commission consultants are analyzing competing proposals for tracks in Little Orleans and in western Allegany County, near Frostburg.
Their reports are due next month, in preparation for three days of racing commission hearings in January that are likely to end with an immediate decision, said racing commission Chairman John B. Franzone.
"We're actually, hopefully, getting to the starting gate," Franzone said yesterday.
The racing commission will decide whether a license should be granted to a group that includes Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel tracks, for a Frostburg track or to William Rickman Jr., a Montgomery County developer who owns the Delaware Park racetrack and is the force behind the Little Orleans proposal.
The commission also could decide to grant no license at all.
Little Orleans residents petitioned the county commissioners for yesterday's hearing after they failed to persuade county zoning officials to reject Rickman's plan and lost in their appeal to the county Circuit Court.
Twenty residents argued against the proposal to place a track near the Interstate 68 exit for Little Orleans on a 140-acre farm where stakes outline a one-mile racing oval.
"We have a diamond in the rough, but not everything needs to be polished to be all fancy," said Sharon Taylor of Little Orleans.