Maryland's attorney general temporarily halted today Bowie Race Course's plans to begin Sunday racing on Jan. 27, even as a cavalcade of Bowie clergy and citizens packed a legislative hearing room to insist that they were entitled to at least one day of relief each week from track traffic.
In a 15-page opinion, Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs ruled that the state's Thoroughbred Racing Board had failed to adequately notify the public of its hearing on granting Sunday racing to Bowie last October.
The board will have to hold a new hearing before Sunday schedules at Bowie can begin. Chairman Robert W. Banning said he hopes to convene the five-member panel by the end of the week.
Even if the board again grants Sunday racing dates to the Bowie track, the issue of Sunday racing this year will ultimately be decided by the state legislature. The state's track owners and promoters have been challenged by an alliance of Bowie clergy and politicans who say that traffic congestion caused by racing fans has made them "prisoners in their homes" on weekends.
For years, the citizens argue, they have festered quietly in the midst of late-afternoon traffic jams on the area's major routes while 3,000 to 6,000 cars poured out of the track parking lot shortly after 5 p.m.
When the board granted the new Sunday dates to Bowie in October, the citizens said they decided they had had enough. Sunday racing would force the postponement or rescheduling of services and meetings by at least two churches and one synagogue near the track, and would clog streets during the traditional day of rest, they insist.
Led by the Rev. John F. Hogan, former All-Met football player for De Matha High School, clergy and members from 15 churches and synagogues have spent the last several months lobbying legislators and various state review boards.
They took their case to the House Ways and Means Committee, which is considering four different bills -- one introduced by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Balt. City) -- that would ban Sunday racing at Bowie and other tracks in the state.
"We should have at least one day of respite," Hogan told the committee. "This (Sunday racing) is being done for money, only for money."
Banning and other supporters who testified in favor of Sunday racing argued that Sunday racing was necessary to revitalize a lagging racing industry in the state, and that the fiscal advantages of the arrangement outweighed any possible traffic problems.
Alvin A. Karwacki, the general manager of Bowie Race Course, told the committee that seven Sunday racing dates would increase track wagering totals by $4.4 million, and would bring the state $181,000 in additional revenues while providing new jobs.
"Our opposition will say to you, 'Money isn't everything,'" Karwacki said. "I agree. But the unfortunate fact of life is that we must continue to provide for the well-being of ourselves."
"It's a form of religious snobbery to believe that you can exist in this life without revenue," added Ralph Elsmo, a sports promoter.
The ways and means committee will vote on the bills within the next two weeks, and is expected to approve the ban on Bowie's Sunday racing, partly because of the controversy over the racing board's original granting of the track's new dates.
At today's hearing, the three sponsors of the Bowie bill, Prince George's Democrats Gerald F. Devlin, Charles J. Ryan, and Joan Pitkin, charged that the board had deliberately ignored Bowie citizens.
Ryan alleged that the decision had been made at the end of a largely unadvertised meeting last October when only one Bowie citizen -- Mayor Audrey Scott -- was present. Scott was not allowed to comment on the proposal, Ryan said.
Banning said the racing board based its actions on the advice of an assistant attorney general who had said that a public hearing on Sunday racing was not required. But Sachs' opinion today said that the granting of the Sunday dates amounted to a major change of the board's policy, and consequently should have been widely advertised in advance.