It was just after midnight last Sept. 29 when three men lumbered out of the money room at Laurel Raceway. Their arms and shoulders were burdened with canvas bags, 26 in all, and in the bags was $600,000 in cash, every dollar collected there on the final day of the harness racing season.

At the direction of Joseph Shamay, the track owner, the other two men stuffed the bags into the trunk of a brown sedan. That done, they sped in a three-car caravan toward downtown Laurel.

The streets were deserted that night as they drove into the northern Prince George's town and pulled into a parking lot next to an, office of Citizens National Bank. There, they scampered out of their cars, opened the trunk and proceeded to shove the money bags, one by one, into bank's night-deposit chute.

Joe Shamy and his compatriots had just made what certainly represented one of Maryland's largest and most curious night deposits. In so doing, they kept their money safely out of reach of the National Bank of Washington, which at the time was trying to freeze the harness track's daily betting receipts against a defaulted $4.5 million loan.

This was a fitting ending to Shamy's four-year tenure at Laurel Raceway. It was a strange, and at times slapstick, era that revealed as much about Maryland's home-brewed mix of racing, politics and corruption as the more infamous actions of Marvin Mandel, the imprisoned ex-governor, and his friends a few years earlier at the Marlboro track on the other side of the county.

In many ways, in fact, the story of Laurel Raceway is a sequel to the Marlboro scandal. Shamy, eventually convicted on fraud and racketeering charges for diverting more than $1 million in race-track funds to his own use, takes on the role of main character in this sequel. But many of the names from the old era reappear in various scenes during Shamy's rise and fall. Among them:

Maurice Wyatt, the patronage chief during the Mandel administration. As a private lawyer in 1978, Wyatt used his influential contacts to get Shamy a major loan that kept the track in operation.

Harry W. Rodgers III, a codefendant in the Mandel corruption trial, now serving time in a federal prison. Shorty after he took over at Laurel, Shamy shifted the track's insurance coverage to a company owned by Rodgers.

Irvin Kovens, another imprisoned Mandel associate who for two decades was the ex-governor's financier. Last year, Shamy formed a partnership that purchased valuable property near Atlantic City, N.J. Among the partners were Kovens' two daughters and a son-in-law.

Marvin Mandel himself, who denied several times at Shamy's private table at trackside in 1978, while his corruption conviction was on appeal.

Aside from Wyatt, these men play only minor parts in the Laurel story. Still, the fact that Shamy turned to them, and that they returned his friendship at a time when they had severe racing-related troubles of their own, says much about the seemingly inexorable bond between racetracks and politicans in Maryland.

It is a bond that one racing official scornfully took note of when summarizing the Shamy era. Said he: "It's awful the way the Maryland public perceives racing because of things like this. It's as if it's the lowest form of life, as if it's . . . well . . . as if it's Maryland politics."

For Joseph E. Shamy, 45, the politics began in New Jersey. It was there that he met his wife, Greta, hooked up with his wealthy father-in-law, Daniel Rizk, and learned how to make friends with the state and local politicians who would be helpful in his career as a lawyer-businessman.

His avenue to riches was real estate and, from the beginning, his trump card was an uncanny ability to swing financial deals in the hardest of times. So it was in May 1975 that Shamy and two partners were able to come down to Maryland, obtain a $2.5 million loan from Citzens Bank and Trust, and buy a controlling interest in the Laurel Harness Racing Association and its 5/8-mile track.

The troubles started almost immediately. The presiding judges of the track wrote in his first year-end report that the new owners were "inept." An audit released then showed that Shamy and three other raceway officers loaned themselves $275,000, interest free, from track funds, giving no notice to the minority shareholders who had owned stock in the track long before Shamy arrived.

These shareholders, most of them longtime Marylanders of substantial means, were shocked by the unseemly reports about the outsiders from New Jersey. They took their grievances to court and staged an uprising at the 1976 stockholders meeting. For a lawyer, they used one Russell T. Baker, the same man who later would head the Maryland's U.S. attorney's office that prosecuted Shamy.

The stockholders uprising was at first a success -- Shamy, his wife and father-in-law, who by then were full partners in the venture, were thrown out -- but a Howard County judge quickly reinstated them after declaring that the insurgency was without legal valalidity.

That same year, the state racing commission blasted Shamy for taking longer than promised to renovate the dilapidated track, especially the club-house, which the state had ordered demolished and rebuilt.

At first, track officials asked local fire departments to torch the club-house for free as an exercise. When that failed, the place caught fire anyway and burned to the ground. Months later, Mike Brown, the track president, was convicted of arson in connection with the blaze. His conviction eventually as overturned by an appeals court.

Such situations were nothing new to Shamy. He had been indicted on obstruction of justice charges in an arson conspiracy case himself once, back in 1972 in Middlesex County, N.J., but those charges, too, had eventually been dismissed.

"We used to joke that Joe had so many problems he couldn't fit them all in the front seat," recalled one of Shamy's close associates "He had to put some of them in the trunk."

Indeed, when Shamy solved one problem -- building a new clubhouse for $3.6 million -- he created a much larger one. The tree contracting firms he used for the job were owned by him, and it was the transaction between the track and those companies, and the use of money for the deal, that later would form the basis of his fraud and racketeering indictment.

After the clubhouse was built, the track became delinquent in filing its state taxes. It also committed what horsemen call "the paramount sin in racing" -- runing late in the payment of purses to horse owners. By mid-1978, Citizens Bank and Trust was suing for repayment of its original $2.5 million loan and asking for a court-appointed receiver to run the track.

Up to this point, Shamy seemed capable of pulling off his financial juggling act without outside aid. Despite the track's money problems in 1977, for example, he and Rizk came up with enough cash to invest heavily in the nascent Atlantic City casino gambling industry.

But in 1978, Shamy's troubles escalated sharply from the realm of creditors, bankers and bureaucrats: the FBI started looking at Laurel Raceway's affairs, digging and digging for evidence of alleged skimming of track funds.

With the feds on his back, Shamy, the outsider, turned to the entrenched inner circle of the old-line Maryland politics: He called Maurice Wyatt, then on the staff of Gov. Blair Lee and, before that the chief dispenser of partronage in Mandel's administration.

"I told Joe he needed to localize himself," a close associate recalled in explaining why the New Jersey businessman of Lebanese extraction reached out to the Mandel network. "I used to tell him: 'Joe, you could be read as being a little snotty.' Maybe abrasive would be the word. He needed to get to know people."

In 1978, after Wyatt left Lee's staff, he and Shamy were in frequent telephone contact. Several track employes recall hearing that beleaguered raceway executive holler, "Get me Maurice," when he was hit with demand letters from his bank or creditors. And many former employes say they regularly took calls for Shamy from Wyatt.

Wyatt performed what seemed at the time to be a financial miracle. After banks throughout the United States and western European had turned away Shamy's please for loans, he secured a $4.5 million bailout from Washington's oldest and third-largest bank: The National Bank of Washington.

To do so, Wyatt drew on ties born of years with the still-influential, if deposed, Mandel, according to racetrack and bank sources. These sources said Wyatt worked through two NBW board members: Willie Runyon, a Baltimore ambulance executive perceived at the bank as the representative of the majority stockholder, United Mine Workers of America, and the late Joseph Danzansky, chairman of Giant Food and then NBW board chairman.

A number of loan officers opposed the loan as an unwarranted credit risk, but it was approved by the executive board anyway. It went into default less than a year later and has since come under close scrutiny as part of an internal investigation of NBW lending practices, fed by charges that the union is tightening its grip over NBW's daily operations.

Although Wyatt's involvement with the loan was common knowledge throughout the bank, Maryland racing officials say they were unaware of it at the time. As such, the bailout startled the industry and officers of other banks who had turned the Shamys away months earlier.

"I was flabbergasted," said one ractrack executive. "I thought somebody at NBW had absolutely lost his mind."

Wyatt's role at the track was hard for an outsider to detect. He never represented Shamy in a public proceeding or put his name on a public document related to the track.In such matters, attorney Leonard Lockhart remained the man out front.

In addition, Wyatt is not listed in any of the track's detailed audits as a recipient of legal fees, although all other attorneys who worked for the track or who represented the Shamys at their federal trial are named along with the amount of their fees.

The Shamy-Wyatt link set off a chain reaction in which more and more Mandel associates were drawn into the track's orbit and finances.

Shamy shifted Laurel's insurance contract to Boone and Rodgers, owned by Mandel codefendant Harry W. Rodgers III. During the 1978 racing season, Mandel himself dined several times at Shamy's private trackside table, taking the races with the man whose name would go down with the former governor's in the stormier chapters of Maryland racing history.

Two weeks before last year's racing season ended, Shamy entered a partnership with more Mandel associates to develop and sell 373 residential waterfront lots about 30 miles north of Atlantic City. The group bought the property last September for $3 million with Shamy as the general partner and limited partners including Wyatt's wife and two daughters and a son-in-law of Mandel codefendant Kovens and Prince George's County doctor Leon Levitsky a majority Democratic financier in the county.

Shamy's financial commitments to the partnership are not specified in the records. The kovens family contributed $220,000; Wyatt, $55,000 and Levitsky, $275,000, the records show.

These relationship which were well-kept secrets in Maryland political and racing circles, set off an alarm in an unsuspecting Pennsylvania lawyer who tried last fall to buy the track, and was told to call Wyatt.

Sam McMichael of Oxford, Pa., said Wyatt, who represented himself as Shamy's lawyer, boasted that he had arranged Shamy's $4.5 million NBW loan and could do the same for McMichael even though money was tight.

"Basically, he was saying, 'Use me,'" McMichael recalled. "I had no idea who Maurice Wyatt was so I did some checking to see who I was dealing with and somebody told me he [Wyatt] was Mandel's man and I just thought: 'Oh my God, what did I step into?'"

Shamy's Maryland political connections may have temporarily solved his financial worries, but they were no more effective in fighting off the federal investigators than they had been during the Mandel case several years earlier. The Shamys and Rizk were indicted in March 1979 on federal fraud and racketeering charges for allegedly skimming more than $1 million in track funds during the 1976 track renovations.

At Joseph Shamy's trial last December, his lawyer presented the jury with the defense that the feisty track administrator had voiced to his critics throughout his tenure in Laurel.

Said the lawyer: "He lied pretty good, he misrepresented pretty good, but these lies and misrepresentations do not add up to fraud." Shamy, he argued, was a determined, if unorthodox, businessman who "hocked his financial soul" to save his track.

The jury disagreed, and convicted Shamy after a two-month trial. He was sentenced earlier this year to four years in prison and is now appealing the verdict.

Soon after the conviction, the racing commission added its own nail to the coffin, revoking the 85 racing days previously held by the Laurel track.

The track is scheduled to reopen Monday under new ownership. Frank J. DeFrancis, a Washington lawyer with heralded financial credentials, has contracted to buy the harness track from NBW, which foreclosed on it this spring. He has vowed to infuse it with a "new spirit," and has even changed its name -- from Laurel Raceway to Freestate Raceway at Laruel.

"They're very sensitive about any comparison to the past owners," a state racing official said.

Nonetheless, DeFrancis has elicited questions from some quarters because of a series of political and financial maneuvers that made it possible for him to buy the track debt free -- even though an audit showed $1.5 million of debts outstanding in the name of Laurel Harness Racing Association, the corporate structure that owned the raceway.

When the racing commission revoked Laurel's racing days and later awarded them to DeFrancis, that association was drained of its last assets.

As such, the longstanding minority stockholders were left with worthless shares of a gutted business. Creditors and stockholders who filed dozens of suits against the track's owners in the past seem too weary to try again. They say they doubt they could win suits against the Shamy's individually since the debts are in the name of the association.

The Shamys are now back in New Jersey, living in their huge, modern brick house, the object of considerable ogling by their neighbors in an otherwise modest subdivision outside Atlantic City. Joseph Shamy is awaiting the outcome of his appeal, while Greta Shamy's fraud and racketeering trial is still pending, along with that of her father, Rizk.

The house was pledged along with the racetack as collateral for the $4.5 million NBW loan, but the bank foreclosed only on the track, leaving the expansive house with the Shamys.

A state law enforcement source said Maryland authorities are actively considering civil and criminal investigation of the track's 1979 finances. A recently released audit showed that Shamy took $645,828 from track funds last year as a "cash advance," of which $152,630 was not repaid. There is also the matter of some $600,000 in unpaid state taxes and fees, in addition to the bizarre deposit of the last night's receipts in the wrong bank.

Joseph and Greta Shamy recently refused to talk about any aspects of their affairs at the track or elsewhere.

"I hate to be rude, but I'm going to close the door," Greta Shamy told a reporter who came to her suburban New Jersey home. "I just want to live a nice quiet peaceful life."