Just as the scent of manure wafts subtly through the air along with the excitement and pageantry of horse races, so the suggestion of something foul hangs in the corridors of the Maryland state capitol each time horseracing becomes a political issue here.

It seems that legislators with a stake in the issue can't even talk about it without conjuring up the spirit of imprisoned exgovernor Marvin Mandel and and the Marlboro Race Track scandal that sent him and three friends to federal correctional institutions.

It is a truism that as far back as one looks in the history of horse racing in Maryland, there has been political or financial skulduggery, followed by clarion calls for racing reform, followed by more skulduggery. . . .

Last week, Gov. Harry Hughes, who was elected largely on his clean-face, clean-hands image in the wake of the Mandel affair, sought to place himself in the reformist cycle of racing history. After remaining virtually out of sight for the first month of the General Assembly session, Hughes seemed to burst out of his second-floor office with guns blazing when he announced his support for legislation to save the faltering racing industry. The legislation would consolidate thoroughbred racing at Laurel and Pimlico, with the state buying out Bowie for $6 million and closing down the half-mile track at Timonium in Baltimore County.

Immediately talk in the legislative chambers one floor below Hughes' office turned to conspiracy: "The last time we tried racetrack consolidation, the governor went to jail," one senator whispered to several colleagues, who cackled nervously in response.

Hughes called a press conference the next day to describe what he presented as a clean, straightforward initiative, solidly backed by the top levels of legislative leaders. He sat at a long table, flanked on the left by Senate President James Clark (D-Howard and Montgomery counties) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Melvin Steinberg (D-Baltimore County); on the right by Speaker of the House Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel).

"We're very positive about this," Hughes told the packed press conference, and the legislators said the same as they went on to explain why they believe the package provides a comprehensive solution to the financial -- and some of the ethical -- ills of the beleaguered industry.

Then, inevitably, it happened: One reporter held up a list of the owners of Bowie. He waved it in the air and began to read what sounded like a roll call of the names attached to the most renowned racetrack scandal -- the Marlboro affair.

Did you know, Governor, that Tubby Schwartz and Eugene Casey and Marlboro Associates own interests in this track? How do you feel about giving $6 million to these men? Is this just the Tubby Schwartz relief act? Did you know they were the owners? Did you even look into the ownership of this track?

Sure enough, the names were there on the list. The jury in the Mandel trial found that Mandel's codefendants secretly owned the Marlboro track although it was publicly listed as belonging to Marlboro Associates, and Irving T. (Tubby) Schwartz. Casey at one point had represented himself as the purchaser of the Marlboro track.

Hughes said he hadn't realized these men held shares in the track he hoped the state would buy. There was the Mandel ghost again: The Mandel case had grown, after all, from the governor's support of legislation that would benefit his friends, who held hidden interests in the Marlboro track. Did it matter that some of these same men held stock in Bowie?

Suddenly, the bright, open hall where the press conference was staged began to reek of intrigue.

The questioners targeted all four legislative leaders, and Hughes, forcing each man to go on the record saying he had no compunction about using state funds to buy a track whose owners included many of the men from the Mandel affair.

"I have to take the position that the ownership of the tracks was not a factor in these deliberations," said Hughes, the first to bite the bullet. "Who owns the tracks cannot be of interest to me. It was an upfront matter. The alternative was not to do anything because of who might own what."

Clark, too, said the ownership was not an issue in this case, although a reporter reminded him that he testified at the Mandel trial that he would not have supported the Marlboro bill had he known that Mandel associates held hidden interests in the track.

"The paramount issue is the importance of racing to the state," said Clark, a farmer-gentleman whose integrity has been questioned possibly the least of any longtime legislator in Annapolis. "If we let that dominate, we'll kill racing in the state. . . We'd let racing go down to nothing in Maryland."

For the rest of the day, the state house buzzed with dark suggestions of what was afoot. The considerable contingent that feels loyal to Mandel groused sourly about double standards: Why did it matter who owned the track when Mandel was governor if it doesn't matter when Hughes is governor? (Nobody was bothering to mention the other half of the Mandel case: the lavish gifts the governor accepted from his Marlboro friends, in return for his political influence on their behalf. For the purposes of argument, the ownership issue made tastier meat.)

But before the news could get out on the wire, the story changed again. As it turns out, Mandel's friends no longer hold stock in Marlboro Associates because the federal court is confiscating their share as part of the penalty for their conviction in the fraud and racketeering case. However, Casey and Schwartz still own several thousand shares of Bowie stock in their own names and federal prosecutors said this week that the ownership of those shares is not being contested.

While the sponsors of the consolidation plan insist that the ownership issue is nothing more than a red herring, it promises to cloud the growing debate over the far-reaching consolidation package. Said Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the house subcommittee on racing, "Last time around, I was one of the few people who said ownership wasn't an issue. Now everybody else says it isn't an issue, but I'm beginning to think that maybe it is."