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Upside, Downs

With a fancy hotel, Dover Downs seeks a richer slot

By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 10, 2002; Page C02

Wayne Newton still has a high and mighty head of jet-black hair -- a towering testament to good conditioner and a great colorist. But his voice is no longer as lofty. When Mr. Las Vegas, packed snugly in his trusty tux, tries to climb for those especially croony notes during "Danke Schoen," his grin never wavers, but he sounds like he's being strangled by his microphone cord.

This gargled setback, however, fails to bother the clap-happy throngs at the Rollins Center, the 1,500-seat performance space in the shiny-new Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center in Dover, Del. In fact, Deanna Hensley, one of Newton's most demonstrative fans this Saturday night, spends most of the show hopping on her high heels. The finely dressed Baltimore woman will soon return to the slot machines in the hotel's casino (she boasts she's been winning big on the nickel slots), but now she's simply gaga for the sublimely coiffed, if shoddily piped, showman onstage.

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Hensley, it should be noted, is 36 years old. Just about everyone else at the hotel on this grand-opening weekend hasn't been 36 since LBJ was president. Although she's decidedly outnumbered by people who remember when bread cost a quarter -- "Gosh, I'm the youngest person here," she says -- Hensley is one of the guests most coveted by the hotel. She's young. She wears fancy clothes. And she's not afraid to spend her money -- including $100 for a concert ticket and who knows how much for a room, expensive dinner and prolonged gambling.

Known primarily for harness racing, simulcast betting, NASCAR events at the Dover International Speedway and, starting in 1995, a slots-only casino, Dover Downs has never been much concerned with courting the polo-and-Chardonnay set. Instead, the mood here has been order a Budweiser, smoke 'em if you got 'em and stay the heck away from that 7 horse. Unlike the up-all-night vibe of Vegas, it's a mood as down-to-earth as the no-frills diners lining Route 13 that boast early-bird specials and AARP discounts. In the past, punters would just pull up to the park-and-rest motel down the street.

But the sprawling $60 million hotel, which officially opened in mid-March, is looking to jazz up Dover Downs's blue-collar rep. Designed by Philadelphia-based Cope Linder Associates, the neoclassical style borrows from such yowza-glam Vegas properties as the Mirage and Caesars Palace. The 10-story hotel welcomes guests with a cavernous lobby, set aglow by a majestic chandelier, of course. The columns soar to the ceiling, the marble floor is intricately detailed and a wide, sweeping staircase leads up to Michele's, the high-end candlelit restaurant where the specialties are filet mignon and lobster tail.

EconoLodge it ain't.

Hensley, a frequent visitor to casino hotels, was impressed as soon as she handed her car keys to the valet and strolled through the revolving doors. "Oh yeah, this place could definitely survive on the Vegas Strip," she says. "I didn't expect it to be so grand, especially the lobby." Her mother, a Baltimore travel agent who has been to Sin City six times in the past year, agrees.

The hotel has 232 rooms and suites, some of which overlook the harness racing track and the speedway. They encircle a concrete-and-steel stadium that contrasts starkly with the roomy elegance of where you'll be resting your head.

But if you really want to talk spacious, beeline for the bathroom, stocked with designer soaps and those giant fluffy towels that make everyone feel like they've somehow shed a few pounds, no matter what the well-lighted mirrors say.

The hotel also features a dark and cozy lobby bar, an indoor pool and exercise club and, for those unwilling to shell out the big bucks at Michele's, the Festival Buffet, an over-the-top culinary spectacle whose greatest asset may be that it allows you to quickly wolf down as many starches as needed for another few hours of mechanized gaming.

Close to the buffet are the betting parlors and casino, which are still the seat of the most perverse thrills to be had at the re-imagined Dover Downs. For all the glistening touches such as Michele's and the Rollins Center -- and, wow, those bathrooms -- the hotel will never entirely exorcise the slightly sordid spirit of its surroundings, which is what makes the place so much fun. (In fact, even Michele's provides an old-school twist and plays elevator music during dinner. There's nothing like sampling tender Chilean sea bass in a tomato basil vinaigrette while listening to an extended pan-flute salute to Phil Collins.)

From the lush, lavish lobby, you can hear the faint soundtrack of bells, beeps and whistles coming from the casino. And as you approach the noise, walking through a long solemn hall that will soon house the inevitable shops, the cacophonous jangle of quarters lost and dreams shattered gets louder and louder, sounding strangely like a particularly upbeat Enya song.

Dover Slots, where the suits and ties of the Rollins Center turn into sweat suits and backward baseball caps, has 2,000 machines, ranging from the nickel takers to the big, bad dollar snatchers. There are no blackjack tables, no roulette, no high-rolling baccarat honchos.

But there are thousands of unwatched cigarettes that grow perilously long ashes while gamblers wait anxiously for that big payout. And when the slot jockeys aren't playing, they're taking a breather at the numerous long bars (each with plenty of video poker) flanking the ching-ching Technicolor madness or at the Garden Cafe, which serves sandwiches for lunch and a moderate buffet for dinner.

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