The proposal to permit simulcasting of races between Pimlico and Laurel may have stirred up fierce debate in Maryland, but in the states where intertrack betting has been legalized it is anything but controversial. It is more apt to be described as a salvation, a lifeblood, as the future of the sport.

Intertrack betting is legal in several major racing regions, but two of them -- New Jersey and northern California -- have shown the industry how rich its potential is. The innovation has transformed San Francisco-area tracks Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields from a minor league circuit into one of the most successful in the country. And intertrack betting has rescued the whole thoroughbred business in New Jersey.

"Without it," said Bob Levy, president of Atlantic City Race Track, "there would be no Garden State, no Atlantic City, and Monmouth and the Meadowlands would be giving about 50 percent of the purses that they now do."

Levy brought intertrack betting to his state out of necessity -- and desperation. With competition from casinos, his track couldn't continue to survive with a summer-long race meeting that did modest business. Levy sought help in 1983 by simulcasting races from the Meadowlands into his plant. "The Meadowlands thought it was a joke," he said, "and everybody laughed at us. They thought we were out of our minds. But even we never dreamed that the impact would be what it turned out to be."

Virtually every track in New Jersey now sends its races to every other track, and horseplayers have responded enthusiastically. They don't care if they don't see a live horse. Last Monday night, Atlantic City's total handle was roughly $952,000, of which $337,000 came from live customers at the track. Bettors at Garden State accounted for $316,000 and those at the Meadowlands wagered $299,000. Even the one-time skeptics at the Meadowlands are convinced.

"Like all the tracks in the East," said Allen Gutterman, the Meadowlands' director of development, "we've been affected by lotteries and casinos. On-track business is declining. The only area of growth is simulcasting. It's become a lifeblood."

Intertrack betting has become so pervasive in New Jersey that tracks are now taking bets on each other's races that are being run on the same evening. "When this started," Levy said, "none of us ever thought of simulcasting into a live meet. But on Saturday we'll take bets on 31 races. In the afternoon we'll have 10 races from Monmouth. At night we'll have 11 races live and 10 from Monmouth. It's a horseplayer's dream."

The only drawback anyone has found in the New Jersey system is that tracks' live business can be hurt by simulcasting to an outlet too close to them. "We've experimented," said Gutterman, "and we have enough evidence to know that when we simulcast to Freehold -- a 40-minute drive from here -- it affects our business greatly. Our numbers were down 6 1/2 percent as a result. The lesson is that you shouldn't simulcast to an area where you have live clientele."

Racing officials in Maryland may feel especially jealous of New Jersey's success with intertrack betting, especially since a bid to simulcast races from Pimlico to Laurel was blocked by the state legislature. Maryland and New Jersey are head-to-head rivals, competing to lure top stables and jockeys away from each other. In virtually every respect, Maryland has outshone New Jersey. Only intertrack betting has enabled New Jersey's racing and purse structure to stay on a par with Maryland's.

Yet New Jersey isn't the prime example of the potential of intertrack betting. Northern California is. When the state legislature passed a measure permitting the simulcast of races from track to track, and from tracks to fairgrounds, nobody could have dreamed its impact.

Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields have traditionally offered a moderate quality of racing -- distinctly inferior to that of the big tracks in southern California and probably a cut below Maryland's. But since they started beaming their races to 11 "satellite" locations, their business has exploded. Golden Gate's average daily handle at its last meeting was $2.6 million (approximately double that at Laurel).

The success of intertrack betting in the north has given rise to legislation that would permit a similar arrangement in southern California. When Santa Anita, Hollywood and Del Mar are allowed to take bets on each other's races, their figures will dwarf the business that any American race track has done.

Alan Balch was a Santa Anita assistant general manager before he moved north to become president of Simulcast Enterprise, but in both places he has been keenly interested in the marketing of the sport. "Every study ever done on racing says that the prime determinant in track attendance is the convenience factor," Balch said. "Satellite betting is simply making it convenient for people to go to the track. When a racing fan moved to Stockton {Calif.}, he might have gone to the track once a month for geographical reasons. Now he might go three times a week. What we're seeing here is the future of racing."