Ka-Ching!

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By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Let's see . . . racing program, menu, racing program, menu -- oh, and fiancee. It's hard to forget about her, now that she's violently stabbing a losing betting ticket with a steak knife.

Not exactly Lady Luck's gal pal, Jen is failing to appreciate the true genius of the swanky Skyline Terrace, a fine dining experience that doubles as a makeshift betting parlor at Charles Town Races & Slots. Built in a refurbished section of the majestic grandstand, and featuring yowza Space Age lighting, the cavernous restaurant overlooking the racetrack is just one of the architectural masterstrokes at West Virginia's 350-acre gambling wonderland.

Unlike Jen, however, I flat-out love the throwback restaurant, especially when the horses take the final turn and nattily dressed diners suddenly erupt as if they're ringside at a cockfight. Equally seductive is Longshots, the dark-wood-trimmed simulcast center just outside the restaurant. When Charles Town opened on Dec. 2, 1933, it was the only operating racetrack in America -- and history hangs in the air, renovations and all.

But what I really just can't get enough of is Charles Town's spectacularly over-the-top three-part casino -- especially the spanking-new Slot City funhouse -- and its array of bustling top-shelf cocktail lounges and 2,700 bleeping, blinging one-armed bandits. Jen harrumphed that the casino was smoky; I, on the other hand, sucked in the air like a former pack-a-dayer having a nic fit.

Okay, so maybe my affection for this fast-paced place -- situated in West Virginia's history-rich Jefferson County, and just a quick 70 minutes from Washington -- stems from the fact that I've been on a killer winning streak this entire January weekend: first on the Double Diamond slots, then on the Wild 2's video poker, now on all the pretty ponies. I'm considering slapping $50 on Wishful Whitney in the fourth, and getting the lobster tail for dinner.

Our Skyline Terrace server, a good-natured college kid named Donald, has come for our order three different times and has left with nothing but a wave and "a couple more minutes, please" -- much to Jen's chagrin. With my head a whirly mess of wins, places and shows, I can't even decide on a salad dressing, let alone an entree. Donald simply agrees to bring us some more merlot, then heads off into the excited masses. Post time for the next race is in five minutes. There are more important things to ponder than the surfy-turfy menu.

"I'm sick of losing," Jen says, staring out the multistory grandstand window, watching the horses trot by. "And I'm tired of you winning."

Yeah, that's not good. I mean, check out the subtext! But that's okay. I'm up big. Across-the-board big. Lobster-tail big. God-I-love-this-place big.

"Hey, look at this," I say. "There's a horse called Shoe Queen in the fifth race. You love shoes. Let's bet on it together!"

Before she can react to my jackassery and stab me with the steak knife, I run up to the betting window -- there are several in the Skyline Terrace -- and put a few bills down on Shoe Queen.

Granted, if I had lost money -- you know, like Jen -- I might have sullenly joined the great slot-machine debate now consuming Maryland. After all, as Gov. Robert Ehrlich argues for the legalization of 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks, West Virginia legislators are allowing Charles Town Races & Slots to grow even more. The number of machines will reach close to 3,500 by the end of this year, with another 49,000 square feet designated for gambling space.

Political quandaries and cranky fiancees aside, this temple to devilish delights sure can tempt you. Bright, cheerful and relatively hip, it has the feel of a well-kept, high-priced amusement park, and there are distractions even for non-gamblers. The crowd, coming from as far away as New York, is a mix of young and old, with chain-smoking blue hairs (with and without oxygen tanks) mingling among the beer-toting college kids.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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