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Wag the dog 

Will slot machines eclipse the animals at Arkansas tracks?

DEAL EM: Video blackjack at Southland.
  • DEAL EM: Video blackjack at Southland.

 

Down at Oaklawn, it’s the kind of late February day that makes you suspect God is a fan of horseracing: 73 degrees, the sky a blue dome marked only by a ghostly thumbprint of daytime moon. As the horses come out of the barns and onto the track, even they seem to know that winter has mostly played itself out. If animals can express joy, surely these do. They almost hover with each step, their hides catching the sun — roan, dun, bay, chestnut, black — purpose-bred engines of muscle and sinew, tapering down to legs that look as delicate as spun glass.

Believe it or not, even with this spectacle of evolution and breeding and pure, equine grace on display, there are people at Oaklawn this day who just don’t give a damn about horseracing.

The room under the grandstand where Oaklawn keeps its 350-odd Instant Racing machines and 125 electronic games of skill — Lock-n-Roll, video poker and a few other games that I couldn’t quite puzzle out — is maybe a football field in size once you count all its nooks and crannies. It’s mostly not Oaklawn’s fault that their electronic gambling parlor is a windowless tomb of a place, devoid of sunlight and clocks. Expansion of electronic gambling at the track is currently on hold, awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Family Action Council Committee. The lawsuit, now pending before the state Supreme Court, questions whether Garland County residents outside Hot Springs city limits should have been allowed to vote on whether to include gambling on electronic games at the track.

As relatively humble as it is, even what Oaklawn has is surely a sign of things to come. As at most casinos, the parlor at Oaklawn is all flash, lit mostly by neon. Even when the machines pay — though they make the hollow, metallic, chunka-chunka-chunka noise of coins dropping into the tray — all you really get is a redeemable piece of paper. The air is filtered and chilled. Silent attendants move among the 300 or so players on hand, swabbing down empty stools with cleanser. Among them circulate the drink girls, with their trays and hoochie-mama dresses. Among them sit the players, staring into spinning rolls or hands of virtual cards like they’re looking for The Answer.

While the gamblers here might not find the true path to riches, Arkansas’s two animal racing tracks — thoroughbred race track Oaklawn in Hot Springs and greyhound race track Southland in West Memphis — just might. Since voters in those communities approved the installation of what the tracks call “electronic games of skill” at the tracks in 2006, machine gambling has taken off.

For example, figures from the Arkansas Racing Commission show gross electronic gambling wagers for January 2007 at Oaklawn of more than $11 million, which produced a cash flow of about $25,000 per day for the track. At Southland, wagering was more than $8 million, but a lower payoff percentage increased its cash flow to about $45,000 per day. In time, the tracks predict more than $1 billion a year in wagers on the electronic machines, which could produce $100 million for the track before taxes and other overhead. Though electronic gambling hasn’t hit that rate overall yet, if it does it would more than double the money bet in 2006 at the tracks on live, simulcast and Instant Racing pari-mutuel wagering — a total of about $92 million at Southland and $337 million at Oaklawn. Already, though, Southland is pulling in on average each month on the machines as much as it made on other wagering last year.

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