Natalie Higdon 0000-00-00 00:00:00
More than half a century has passed since Southland Greyhound Park opened its doors on Sep. 7, 1956, and the facility is doing its best to hold the attention span of gamers who now have so many entertainment options. In 2005, a $40 million renovation began to bring Southland’s gaming options into the 21st century, adding — among other things — blackjack, video poker machines, flat-screen monitors, a poker room, live entertainment, the World Market Buffet, and a 74-seat fine dining steakhouse. “Racing is fast and it’s instant, but then there’s a gap until the next race starts,” says Troy Keeping, Southland Park Gaming & Racing’s president and general manager since May 2007. “So garnering interest from new customers is always a challenge.” The new gaming, food, and entertainment options at Southland all serve the same purpose of exposing a new generation to the excitement of a sport that has stayed relatively the same for almost a century. “People’s memory of Southland is that it had passed its prime,” Keeping says. “It’s not past its prime anymore. We’ve got more than 300 Video poker machines, and this last year we instituted nine-dog races — there are very few racetracks wide enough to do that. We’re still one of the top tracks in the country.” Most people familiar with Southland’s history talk about the industry in two phases: before Tunica and after. “Back then, we were the only game in town,” says Chuck Mullen, a greyhound trainer who has worked at Southland since 1973. “Everybody that was anybody in West Memphis or Memphis came here.” Mullen learned the sport from his father, who had learned it from his father, who raced greyhounds in the 1920s and ’30s. Mullen’s father worked at Southland from day one, and Mullen ran the family’s kennel until 2000. “After the casinos came in, I had to give it up,” he says. “The greyhound industry has had its peaks and valleys, but Tunica marked the biggest change,” says Keeping. “And that has happened nationwide. It has forced the racing industry family to get smaller because tracks are going out of business. So there’s not that sense of camaraderie and energy that used to exist in the ’80s.” The 1980s also marked a time of celebrity athletes in greyhound racing, such as Keefer, the record-breaking greyhound that drew big crowds to Southland, the number one track in the country. Most would bet on Keefer, but many just wanted to watch him run. Before Tunica, the biggest change in racing for Della Henry was the switch from 100 racing days a year to year-round operations. Her husband, Darby, ran a kennel from 1956 until his nephew took over in 2002. Della met Darby while she worked as an usher at Southland from 1960 to 1961, back when Southland had reserved seating for its races. Like many other kennel owners, Darby traveled to another track when Southland closed for the season, which meant that for 30 years, he spent four to six months a year at a track in St. Petersburg, FL — and away from Della. Like Mullen, Darby was introduced to greyhound racing by his father, who, in 1939, took his son to watch greyhound races at a track in West Memphis that people just called “under the bridge.” That track near the river was built in 1926 and was never reopened after it burned down. But Darby remembers the bleachers and the motorized rabbit — “and how big the mosquitoes were!” The opening of Southland Greyhound Park marked an entry into a more modern era of greyhound racing, yet there still wasn’t air conditioning, and the viewing area wasn’t glassed in. Mildred Hill, daytime receptionist at Southland, has worked at the park since before the doors opened, hired as a housekeeping supervisor on April 5, 1955. Of the original six hired — three male and three female — she is the last original employee remaining at the track. “It was such a nice and different place for people to come,” Hill recalls. “And it was always overcrowded,” Hill says. “There used to be 10,000 people in here.” “On the ground floor, you’d see nothing but heads,” Darby adds. “They’d run buses out of St. Louis here, out of Little Rock. Coming across the bridge, traffic would just be backed up.” Traffic on racing days became so heavy, in fact, that the city changed Frontage Road — which runs in front of Southland — to one way only. Although Southland, owned by Delaware North Companies, remains one of the top greyhound racetracks in the country, Keeping would like to see Southland regain the crowds that were lost to the casinos. “We’re trying some innovative things,” he says. “It’s similar to how poker in the late ’80s died. Casinos pulled out poker rooms, and then a little thing like a camera on a table made poker famous all over again. We’re trying to find that million-dollar idea that will ultimately reinvent racing, because it’s still a very exciting sport.” Maintaining the integrity of that sport is a top priority for Keeping and Shane Bolender, Southland’s director of racing. Bolender has spent 20 years working in greyhound racing At racetracks across the country — including eight years working for independent kennel operations — before arriving at Southland in August 2007 to help oversee more than 1,250 onsite dogs. “A lot of people don’t realize that because greyhounds look a lot alike, we have to really check to make sure that the greyhound you’re placing your money on is the greyhound that’s actually going to race,” says Bolender. “That includes taking control of the dogs from the trainers an hour before each performance — which is the series of races for the evening or matinee. We weigh them and check each dog’s tattoos and markings.” And like all athletes, greyhounds are subjected to drug testing. “We have 17 contracts with kennel owners,” says Keeping. “Shane handles that portion of the business. I have a director of gaming and the same with food and beverage. We’re responsible for a workforce of about 490 associates. We have racing six days a week, gaming pretty much 24/7 — it’s a very large footprint and operation.” Keeping says the future for Southland includes refurbishing the Kennel Club and mezzanine level to match the $250,000 improvements made to the Winner’s Edge — an upscale simulcast room that mirrors the ones in Vegas — and a party deck on track level. The revenue needed for such renovations is worth all the effort and hard work, Keeping says, if they succeed in exposing more people to the exciting sport it’s all centered around. “When you stand on the rail and watch a greyhound go by at 35 to 40 mph, it’s amazing. It really is amazing.” Southland Park Gaming & Racing, 1550 N. Ingram Blvd., West Memphis, AR, 870-735-3670, 800-467-6182, southlandgreyhound.com.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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