The gate opened, the horses broke and three men sprawled around table No. 15 at the Cracked Claw, a quirky landmark just south of Frederick that offers fine dining and off-track betting, began yelling at the TV monitors. They bickered over whose horse was the best pick.
"Get it, boy!" shouted one.
"Come on, Nine!"
"Come on, Four!"
As ceiling fans churned cigar and cigarette smoke, the silk-clad jockeys on the TV screen urged their mounts down the stretch, with Wynns Whim and Speak of the Devil locked head-to-head in a photo finish in Tampa.
"Ah, he quits like a dog," shouted Wally Smith, 70, of Frederick.
Race over, the three turned their attention to matters closer to home, namely whether slot machine gambling would ever be legalized by Maryland's General Assembly, whether slots would come to Frederick County and whether the Cracked Claw, which already has state-regulated gambling, would be the right venue.
"This is a perfect location. You're right in the middle of everything," said Lonnie Seabolt, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a magnifying glass at his side to read the racing forms. "I like the people. I like the atmosphere."
Until recently, this conservative county had rarely been mentioned in the same breath with slots. But a bill that narrowly passed the House yesterday names Frederick as one of four counties that could host a slots parlor. Other sites are Rocky Gap, the state-owned resort in Western Maryland, as well as venues in Anne Arundel and Harford counties.
But there is opposition to the notion of putting the machines in Frederick County, beginning in the governor's mansion.
"I don't think Frederick makes sense," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) told reporters yesterday. "Clearly, two Western Maryland sites don't make sense."
On Thursday, the Board of County Commissioners spoke in a unified voice against the proposal that could bring as many as 2,500 slot machines to the county. In addition to the Cracked Claw, a site near Frederick Municipal Airport has been mentioned as a possibility, county officials said. That site is owned by William Rickman, a Potomac developer who also owns the Ocean Downs track on the Eastern Shore, officials said. A call to Rickman yesterday was not returned.
Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, noting that the issue has been fought for more than two years, sounded skeptical that the bill would survive the General Assembly or that the benefits of slots would outweigh such ills as traffic, crime and social problems.
"The brass tacks of it just do not make a lot of sense," she said.