The Maryland Racing Commission has been asked to investigate the lack of housing for women who work on the backstretches of the state's thoroughbred tracks while men employed there are given rent-free rooms.

Robert W. Banning Sr., chairman of the thoroughbred board of the commission, said the issue has been placed on the board's Dec. 14 agenda following an inquiry from Rep. Marjorie Holt (R-Md.).

Holt asked for the investigation the state's four thoroughbred tracks after a constituent complained about "blatant sex discrimination" in housing at Bowie Race Course.

The request comes at a time when the number of women working at the tracks is variously estimated at 35 to 55 percent of the employes. No exact figures are available, but, by all accounts, the number is rapidly increasing.

Holt's request does not apply to the state's three harness tracks. Ben Schwartz, chairman of the commission's harness racing board, said legislation passed-by the General Assembly last year provides funds for improvements and construction of dormitories. Provisions definitely will be made for women, Schwartz said.

Although many tracks across the nation have provided women-only or coed housing facilities for the back-stretch workers (grooms, hot walkers, exercise boys), Maryland tracks have not.

The reason most frequently cited by track officials for the lack of housing is fear for the women's safety.

Ann Mahoney, a new member of the thoroughbred board, said, "There's no danger there, and they're supposed to have security all the time, anyway, to protect the horses.

"Women are very, very important to racing now," Mahoney continued. "We've got to bring Maryland racing into the 20th century. Women have got to be treated equally, there's no doubts about it."

Mahoney said the tracks have "improvement funds" that have been used inappropriately for maintenance instead of improvement projects over the last several years. The money from those funds - which represent .5 to 1 percent of the daily take - could be used to provide women's housing, she said.

"They're afraid we're going to be molested," said Cindy Talbot of Baltimore, a free-lance pony girl who was among those randomly interviewed last week at Laurel.

"They think there may be too many sexual overtones or that women wouldn't be able to handle themselves if one of the grooms got drunk and came after a woman," she continued. "There's always a risk of that anywhere, not just at a track . . . We had (coed) dormitories at Meadowlands and Penn National and there were no problems."

What rankles Talbot and many other women is the economic hardship that comes with being forced to live away from work while male counterparts live at the track. She estimates she has to spend $400 a month in rent, gas and automobiles unkeep and insurance - most of which would be unnecessary if she could board at the track.

Kimberly Haffner of Jessup estimates she has $15 left over each month after living expenses. A groom who works at the track from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., Haffner would like to see at least a trial period for women's housing.

Patrols similar to those they had at Arlington Park where she once lived in a coed facility would ease the fear of crime, Haffner said.

Peggy Peters of Atlantic City is a groom who once lived in a women's dorm at Rockingham Park.

"Now I'm seeing what it's really like for a girl on a race track to try to survive," she said. "By the end of the month there's (no money) left."

Laurel and Bowie provide small lounge areas for the women. Laurel's with two beds, closes about 6 p.m., the women said, and they are expected to be off the track when it gets dark. They do arrive at the track in the dark, several noted. Bowie's lounge, with no beds, is reportedly open 24 hours.

Frank Brady, general manager at Laurel, said anyone who does not live on the track is expected to be off it after finishing work.

Brady, who estimates 100 men are housed at Laurel, noted that the track assigns quarters after getting requests from trainers for their employes. No women or their employers have ever asked him for housing, Brady said.

Al Karwacki, general manager of Bowie, said there is no written policy against housing for women, but that he has turned down women's requests for rooms for safety reasons."

Karwacki and Brady declined to commment on the future possibility of women's dormitories until the commission meeting.

But, Brady and Commission Chairman Banning, emphasizing they are not lawyers, questioned whether the tracks could provide separate housing for women under the state's Equal Rights Amendment.

John Oster, a Maryland deputy attorney general, said he thought such an interpretation of the state ERA was "rather strained" and noted that the attorney general has said separate toilets, an issue similar to that of separate dorms, were permissible.

Oster also said he thought the housing issue "is a matter between the tracks and the women at the present time. This is not a matter for the Maryland Racing Commission but probably for the courts."

Banning raised a similar point.

"We do not set the standards," he said."Housing is provided by the track as a convenience. We do not have absolute control over dormitories and how space is allocated because they're (tracks) independently owned."

But, as a man who is familiar with the commission's role and operations and who asked not to be identified said, "The commission has plenty of ways to put pressure on the tracks to do something and they (tracks) know it. If the commission wants housing for women, there'll be housing."