The Persian Gulf War seems to be taking a toll on Maryland racetracks.

Since the war began Jan. 16, business has declined at both the thoroughbred and harness tracks. Laurel Race Course and partner Pimlico are down 8 percent in attendance and 6 percent in betting handle while Rosecroft Raceway's wagers are down 16 percent, according to a track spokesman.

The harness track's decline came despite intertrack wagering dollars from Delmarva Downs, which it did not have at this time last year. Relevant attendance comparisons were unavailable, but Rosecroft has said that it is suffering in that area, too.

Although Rosecroft also has been hampered by negative publicity surrounding owner Mark Vogel, track officials said the war clearly has hindered business, particularly during its first days. They attributed it more to television coverage than worries about venturing into public places.

"I'd attribute 90 percent of our decline to the war," said Jim Mango, Laurel's vice president in charge of operations. "With all the media coverage, people feel like they're watching a piece of history. How do you go against that?"

According to Mango, the thoroughbred tracks saw evidence of a recession before the war broke, but they remained almost on line with last year's numbers until the bombing in Iraq began. "We had a lot of people calling us, looking for work," Mango said. "That in itself told us the economy was getting weaker."

Tom Barry, the general manager of Rosecroft, said in recent days more fans seem to be risking more money now that the newness of the war is subsiding. With help from Delmarva, the track handled just over $400,000 Wednesday night, an increase over that date last year, but still well below its nightly average.

"It seems as though {the war} has sunk in now," said Barry. "People are still following what's going on, but they're probably following the headlines more than minute-to-minute developments. Look how the network coverage has changed. There's probably some correlation."

Barry said Rosecroft will proceed with an upcoming promotional campaign -- an area in which it was unaggressive last year -- but he and thoroughbred executives find themselves treading delicately around the Middle East conflict.

Laurel President Joe De Francis said he and his staff have spent "a substantial amount of time" discussing ways to counteract the war's effect on business.

"It's a very, very sensitive matter," he said. "The magnitude and importance of this event certainly overshadow just about everything."

In the 11 racing days since the war began, betting at Laurel and Pimlico was $1.1 million under what it was last year. Laurel's handle declined 5 percent, off-track Pimlico's 9.4 percent.

Laurel's purses have not been reduced, but De Francis said the track would have to make "some very hard choices" should wagering continue to decline. Rosecroft has compensated by running fewer high-purse races. Banned for 60 Days

Standardbred trainer Phillip Mitchell received suspensions totaling 60 days after four horses running under his name tested positive for terbutaline following races at Rosecroft Jan. 20 and 23, according to a track spokesman. A prohibited drug, terbutaline is classified as a broncho-dilator used to facilitate breathing. . . .

Mike Luzzi, Laurel's leading jockey, won the seventh, eighth and ninth races yesterday.