LITTLE ROCK — An east Arkansas track agreed Thursday to phase out greyhound racing over the next three years, citing a decline in dog racing nationally and fears that the state's voters would approve ending the practice.
The Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved a plan by Southland Casino Racing to end greyhound racing at the West Memphis track by Dec. 31, 2022. Southland said it had reached an agreement with the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association, which has 16 members who own and operate kennels of greyhounds that race at the track.
"We want to avoid a disruptive and abrupt end to live racing to the benefit of all parties, including everyone who has a job at stake," Robert Thorne, president of the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association, said in a statement.
Southland, the state's only greyhound track, has conducted greyhound races in West Memphis since 1956. Under the plan, Southland would still offer casino gambling under a constitutional amendment voters approved last year. Southland in January announced it was building a $250 million casino complex and high-rise hotel at its facility.
Southland's request noted that Florida voters last year approved an end to greyhound racing in in that state by 2021 and that greyhound racing currently exists in only six states.
"There are threats of a similar campaign to end greyhound racing in Arkansas through an initiated amendment to the Arkansas Constitution," the track's proposal said. "If the question of ending live greyhound racing in Arkansas is put before the voters, there is a significant possibility that it would be approved."
The phase-out at Southland will begin next year, with the track going from 6,656 races this year to 4,992 next year and reducing each year after that. David Wolf, Southland's president and general manager, said the phase-out will provide enough time for about 1,200 greyhounds that race at the track to be adopted.
"We know it's going to take time to adopt out the greyhounds, and our commitment is to make sure every greyhound that has raced at Southland finds its forever home," Wolf said in a statement.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was pleased Southland and the association reached a "mutually beneficial" agreement and applauded the commission for approving the terms of the deal.
State Sen. Keith Ingram, a Democrat from West Memphis, said the plan gives the kennel owners time to prepare for the end of racing at the track.
"There's no question that the casino gaming is the big end and it's going to continue to grow," Ingram said. "I think what this agreement does is it gives (kennel owners) a soft landing."
Animal rights groups hailed Arkansas' decision, calling it another sign of greyhound racing's decline across the country.
"It's now clear that greyhound racing will end completely in the United States," GREY2K USA, a greyhound protection group, said in a statement. The Massachusetts-based group said the debate over greyhound racing will now turn to West Virginia, where lawmakers next year are expected to take up legislation that could end the practice in that state.
In Hot Springs, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort said it has no plans to phase out thoroughbred racing there.
"Racing has been Oaklawn's DNA for 115 years and I plan to continue the legacy my family began in 1904," Louis Cella, Oaklawn's president, said in a news release. "As the fourth generation of my family to be at the helm of Oaklawn, I can unequivocally state we are completely dedicated to the great sport of Thoroughbred racing."
(Arkansas Business contributed to this article. All contents © copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved.)