Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Over in West Memphis, at Southland Park, they spend hours in the dark, pawing at metal, making money for someone else at no small risk to their health.
But the greyhounds, their trainers say, are better off than those gamblers. Unlike the men and women hunched over Southland's 1,000 "electronic games of skill," smoking cigarettes and losing money in vast rooms that never see the light of day, the dogs are doing what they love to do: Run.
Or so they say. Not everyone agrees that racing is a good life for a dog. Greyhound advocate organizations have piled up data nationwide about poor living conditions in track kennels and race injuries — some so severe they require the dogs to be put down — for the fleet species. The sport itself has lost popularity, losing out to more lucrative forms of gambling and a growing sentiment against racing dogs. In the past decade, 26 tracks have shut down. Some states, like Arizona, have curtailed the number of allowable racing days. Ardent greyhound protection group GREY2K USA wrote legislation that has ended dog racing in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
Southland Park Gaming and Racing is one of the oldest operating tracks in the United States. Its dog injury record compares well with some tracks (429 at Southland, 1,351 at Gulf Greyhound Park in Texas for the years 2008-2011). Its operators and trainers insist the dogs are well-treated and that they are doing what they love to do, and there's an onsite adoption agency, Mid-South Greyhound Adoption Option, whose customers post happy stories and photos about their dogs on their Facebook page. The track has economic value; it is one of the top employers in West Memphis. Subsidized by the electronic wagers, Southland's purses have improved.
But the fact is, without the gaming, which the state allowed starting in 2006 as a way to compete with casinos in surrounding states, there would be no track. If the games of skill could be uncoupled from the live racing, the change in attendance and wagering, and impact on the West Memphis economy, would be barely noticeable. People would get to gamble, Southland would get to take their money and the dogs could become pets, running around a yard instead of a track.
A decade ago, 15 states allowed dog racing. Arkansas is one of seven remaining states that still do. There are now only 22 tracks (13 in Florida alone) in operation.
Arkansas law requires that electronic gaming be located only at racetracks, which is why gamblers have to go to the Oaklawn horse track in Hot Springs or Southland to play Caribbean Stud or Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The greyhounds bring in miniscule profits compared to the electronic games, but theirs are the tails that wag the business, and what a business Southland is: From January to April this year, $607.7 million was wagered, $173.7 million in February alone, on the electric games of skill (EGS). After a payout of $1.23 billion in winnings in 2011, its net in 2011 was $80 million. Compare that to the handle on the dog track: $19 million for all of 2011. The Racing Commission could not provide the net, but director Ron Oliver estimated it at about 65 percent of the handle.
Troy Keeping, Southland's president and general manager, says Southland is bucking a national trend, describing its track as a "very viable, profitable racing business." But some track owners — like Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Bluffs Run Greyhound Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa — want to get out of the dog business. The New York Times reported in March that Caesars is losing millions of dollars each year at Bluffs Run and has gone so far as to offer the state of Iowa, which like Arkansas ties gaming to live racing, $49 million for the right to shut down the track.
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