12/02/2003 12:00AM

Slots in Maine a melodrama


TUCSON, Ariz. - If you like the tortured twists and turns of soap opera, you'll love what's happening in racing in Maine.

Trotters and pacers, who have raced there for almost two centuries, are in the middle of the daily convolutions, and - with the clink of coming slot machines as background music - so are some of the biggest guns of gaming.

First to appear was Shawn Scott, the Las Vegas promoter of Delta Downs fame, who bought that formerly moribund track for $10 million, promoted slots in Louisiana, and after getting them sold the track to Boyd Gaming for $125 million or so.

Then he took over Vernon Downs, a central New York harness track, by bailing it out of dire distress, and began preparing it for slots when the scent of gold in Maine wafted downwind.

Scott went to Bangor, which has had a little harness track in a town park for more than a century, and told them he would turn it into a huge tourist destination, with a $30 million gambling resort hotel and racino.

Bangor, depressed, was charmed, as were Maine's strapped harness horsemen. Scott hired one of the town's councilmen and made him an executive vice president of his Capital Seven venture. Scott's lawyers, according to the Associated Press, wrote the legislation that became law. It gave the track owner 75 percent of gambling revenue. In other states and provinces with racinos, the percentage to tracks is: 49 percent in Delaware, 47 percent in West Virginia, originally 39.2 percent in Iowa, 10 percent in Ontario, and will be 20 percent in New York. Purses, under the Scott-drafted Maine law, will come not from the track operator but from the state's 25 percent share.

Maine voters, caught up in a huge Indian casino debate, defeated the casino measure but approved slots at tracks. The Bangor city council approved a deal with Scott by a 5-3 vote.

Then the yarn began to unravel.

It turned out that Scott's close associate, Hoolae Paoa, his president at Vernon Downs, had a criminal record in Hawaii, and the town of Vernon's codes officer was working for Vernon Downs while inspecting the track's casino.

It turned out that Maine's two parimutuel tracks and the state's harness horsemen had, as part of their agreement, signed an advance deal to testify to Scott's good character before the Maine Racing Commission on Dec. 15, the last step Scott needs for a go-ahead.

It turned out that Scott had agreed to support Scarborough Downs in its campaign to get a racino, but also had injected a clause in the racing law that gave the track only until Dec. 31 of this year to make alternate arrangements with towns within five miles of the track if the town of Scarborough turned down the racino idea, which it did.

Then, after the owner of Scarborough Downs, Sharon Terry, turned down a partnership offer by Scott, he sued her, saying she had agreed verbally but reneged when other partners entered the picture. Full-page ads suddenly appeared urging alternate sites to turn down Scarborough's request to build. They came from a group called Good Morals for Maine, using the same fax number in Las Vegas that had been used by Scott's Capital Seven venture. Scott and his spokeswoman first denied vigorously that he had done it, but facing the fax faux pas with no explanation, they changed their story, saying the ads had been the unauthorized handiwork of unnamed Scott employees, so eager to help the boss that they ran an ad campaign without him or his PR spokeswoman knowing about it.

At a town meeting in Westbrook, within the Scott-inspired five-mile limit, Peter Carlino, boss of Penn National Gaming, turned up personally to convince the town council to schedule a referendum to let Scarborough build there, with Penn National help. He was convincing, and it did.

The Maine agriculture department, which controls racing, said it was releasing its findings on a background check of Scott, whereupon Scott went to court to stop them. A lower court judge denied his petition, so Scott's lawyers rushed to the state Supreme Court, which granted a stay.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a Manhattan real estate magnate and major harness racing owner and breeder named Jeff Gural, who is trying to buy Vernon Downs from Scott, sued him, charging loan manipulation and irregularities.

At last word, the Bangor city council was considering options to its partnership with Capital Seven, and potential new names tossed around are Penn National, Delaware North, and Kehl Management of Iowa.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's thrilling half-hour in the compelling saga of "As Maine Turns." Or is it "Writhes?"