THE latest skirmish in the Battle of Western Maryland ended in a standoff, and a temporary withdrawal of forces.
But fear not: The troops seeking to march into Allegany County to build a "little country race track" will be back, armed with more ammunition. So will the foot soldiers opposing this incursion, whose aim is to protect their own tracks in the Baltimore-Washington region.
It's a curious conflict.
For starters, there's no economic justification for placing a race track in rural Little Orleans. It's next to nowhere. The rainfall and water supply there are so bad the area is known as "the desert of Maryland." You've got to travel nearly 40 minutes to get there from Cumberland or Hagerstown.
Even the prospective owner admits the track can't make money. That's confirmed by the racing commission's economic analysis and a comprehensive examination by a Kentucky racing economist.
So why place a track in an underpopulated area? There's no way it can compete with another regional track -- the popular Charles Town, W. Va., race course. It offers year-round live racing and 1,500 slot machines. It's now building a $55 million hotel and garage linked to the clubhouse.
The Western Maryland track William K. Rickman Jr. wants to build is a loss-leader. That's why he's demanding three off-track betting facilities in the deal.
Those OTBs would offset track losses, but there's a bigger objective: Draining betting revenue from the big Maryland tracks -- Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft.
You see, Mr. Rickman and his father own Delaware Park, which subsidizes its racing with over $100 million in profits from the track's 2,000 slot machines.
Protecting this valuable Delaware slots-racing asset is of paramount concern. Anything that weakens Maryland race tracks boosts Delaware Park's fortunes.
But a weaker Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft serve another purpose: This could eventually force one of the owners to put a Baltimore-Washington track up for sale. Mr. Rickman has made previous overtures, so there's little doubt about his interest.
Efforts to bring the feuding sides together in a peace accord have failed. So they met on the racing commission's battlefield 10 days ago for a volley of firepower over the Little Orleans track.
The Rickman forces took a beating. The proposed track can't stand on its own financially (it would only offer 21 days of live racing). The three OTBs would cut into existing tracks' wagering revenue and likely lead to reduced purses, layoffs and barn closings.
The only winners would be the Rickmans, their Delaware operations and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, who has used his influence to bring a race track to his home county.
Meanwhile, Maryland racing would suffer another body blow. The sport is already wobbling -- a 47 percent drop in wagering since 1972 and stiff gambling competition from Atlantic City and what are now being called "racinos" in Delaware and at Charles Town.
With Gov. Parris N. Glendening having closed the door on slots in Maryland for the next two years, the Laurel-Pimlico-Rosecroft owners are focusing on upgrading their tracks and creating quality restaurant-betting facilities to broaden racing's appeal.
That strategy falls apart if the Rickmans receive racing commission approval to open competing OTBs around the state.
The Rickman forces, though, don't have a convincing case. After two days of discouraging testimony, they beat a hasty retreat, getting the commission to postpone the hearing indefinitely.
Now the applicants are regrouping. Phone calls went out to some powerful legislators in Annapolis. Pressure will be applied to members of the racing commission to ignore the evidence and let the Rickmans build a Western Maryland race track.
The other side is trying just as hard to pull commissioners in the opposite direction. They've also got potent lawmakers on their side.
Even if the Little Orleans application is rejected, this battle won't end. Speaker Taylor is persistent. The effort to bring slot machines to Maryland tracks will start even before Governor Glendening leaves office in less than two years.
Mr. Rickman won't disappear, either. He's already taken over ownership of the summertime harness race track near Ocean City. He'll still be a thorn in the side of the Baltimore-Washington tracks and a foe of any move that might harm his Delaware investment.
He may have been bloodied in the most recent clash, but this war is far from over.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.