Marshall Crane sat on a bench in the Rosecroft Raceway clubhouse last night, looked out at the persistent rain and the muddy track and said, "Ain't it beautiful?"
After weeks of uncertainty over its ability to operate because of legal and financial troubles that befell owner Mark Vogel, Rosecroft Raceway started its 1991 season on schedule last night to the delight of a small but spirited crowd. The program officially began at 7:36 p.m., and Dun Wright's victory 2 minutes 2 2/5 seconds later left Freida Simpkins of Fort Washington tearing her tickets in half.
"I'm glad they're running," she said. "But I don't know how glad I'm going to be come the end of the night."
Inclement weather brought more than a dozen withdrawals to the 11-race card. Gary McCarthy, Rosecroft's presiding judge, said most of those were Pennsylvania-based horses who encountered shipping problems. It did little to dampen the mood.
"I've been sitting on edge the last three weeks just watching the newspapers," said Bob Cleary of Pomfret, Md. "I was glad to see they got it open regardless of who's running it."
Cleary stuck a thumb toward Ed Powell of Accokeek. "Racing," he said, "that's all we care about. They could put turtles out there and we'd be here."
"I get aches and pains if I stay housebound," said Powell, 85. "If I keep moving, I feel like I'll live longer."
"Moving," Cleary said, "and playing dollar exactas."
Since Vogel was arrested on a cocaine possession charge in September, Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs have been the subjects of sales negotiations and bank foreclosures. As late as Thursday -- after Gov. William Donald Schaefer became involved -- Maryland's only harness tracks still were not assured of opening until Vogel placed them under the control of a federal bankruptcy court, with track executive Jim Murphy appointed trustee.
They are likely to be sold, but for now they are doing business -- even if last night's was as bleak as the weather: A group of 2,250 wagered $320,872. On a dry first night last year, 4,183 risked $551,076.
"As long as there weren't the circumstances that might have been dangerous to the public or the racing community, we were going to open," said Murphy, beset with laryngitis.
Murphy resigned as president and general manager of Rosecroft and Delmarva -- a position he held one year -- and appointed Tom Barry general manager. Barry, former director of operations, has been associated with Maryland harness racing for about a decade.
Murphy assured horsemen and track employees before the races that purse and payroll checks would be solvent and timely.
The murkiness surrounding Rosecroft's racing season brought widespread anxiety to the track's backstretch, where hundreds of trainers and stablehands have feared for their livelihoods.
"I'm prepared to truck to New Jersey for a while . . . but I will stay to see if there are going to be any changes," said trainer Ron MacArthur. "They can't keep going the way they're going. It's impossible. You don't know from one day to the next whether you're racing or not."
Faced with a shortage of racehorses, Rosecroft was unable to fill scheduled 12-race programs for its first three nights of operation. Last night's card contained 11 races, tonight's and Sunday's have 10.
According to Billy Perkins, Rosecroft's secretary of racing, the track traditionally lacks racing stock each January after it has been closed several weeks; fewer than half of the available horses live at the track. Perkins said some trainers and drivers are vacationing, some are racing their horses at other tracks and some simply are waiting to see whether the track survives.
Some disgruntled horsemen said the struggle to fill entries will lessen the quality of racing at Rosecroft, but Perkins said the races shouldn't be any less challenging.
Said Velvert Gholston of Baltimore: "All this stuff with the track didn't have an effect on me any. I'd like to see it settled so I can get my money back from last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. I'm retired; I need some extracurricular activity."