With the chase over, dog track goes grey to blue | Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (2024)

WEST MEMPHIS -- Then there was one.

One more 583-yard dash. One last chance to chase "Rusty."

One last running of the greyhounds.

Saturday night, the winner of the "Last Greyt Race" in Southland Greyhound Park's 66-year history was a dog named Smile N Mean It.

As the sun set on 2022 and the track, owners Mary and David Robinette didn't feel like celebrating.

"Pretty sad, actually," said David Robinette trackside afterward. "We've done this our entire life and that's the last one. ... I don't know how to put it into words."

For Mary Robinette, watching the final running was "exciting, thrilling, sad."

The couple first met at a dog kennel in North Sioux City, S.D, 42 years ago.

The dog's name, given by Mary, came from the title of a book written by Bud and Eunice Williams, pioneers of livestock marketing and stockmanship.

"So since we're going into cattle [after dog racing], it's kind of bittersweet," Mary said. "It's been a hell of a ride."

Said David, "These dogs have taken us and done them like we've never even imagined. Seen all parts of the world and everything else, and they've been really good to us."

The gray, overcast day was marked by multiple commemorative items, including a program with four different vintage covers from the track's heyday, each bearing the title, "The 'Last Greyt Race.'"

Some received a vial full of sand taken from the track surface.

The greyhounds and Robinettes weren't the only ones closing the book on their Southland tenure.

There was Robert Thorne, president of the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association.

Thorne's history with Southland dates back to when he was 16.

Well, that's what he put on his initial application to work at Southland.

"I started out walking dogs," said Thorne, who was actually 15 at the time and is now 62. "My mother worked here [as a greeter]. And, I hate to admit, I lied about one year so I could go and get a job."

Now, as owner of a kennel that houses 12 dogs, his last race was Race 10 of 14.

"It's sad," Thorne said. "I've been doing this 45 years here. ... I've been good till the last three, four hours. This close to that last race is emotional. We've had some of the best dogs in the country in our kennel."

In race No. 10, the dog from his kennel, Slatex Sena, faced off against seven other greyhounds ... and came in last.

Thorne watched, standing at the green trackside railing while holding his 15-month-old granddaughter, Madison.

"I'm happy and everybody's coming off safe today," Thorne said. "So today's ending up being a great day for everybody. ...

"The greyhounds [are] the reason we have everything we have, and we're very blessed."

Slatex and the other dogs all chased "Rusty," the track's mechanical rabbit, around the dirt track.

Well, it's more like a "stuffed fake bone," said Southland's President and General Manager Osi Imomoh.

Once the 14th and final race was over Saturday, what would happen to Rusty?

Imomoh said a lot of people had been asking, "Can I get that?"

Rusty is staying in the Southland family. The rabbit or bone, whichever you prefer, will likely be preserved and put into a shadowbox to put on display.

Imomoh said this amid the general cacophony of the track's "Kennel Club," as the loudspeaker made announcements and a lounge singer performed songs while she sat at an electronic piano in the corner.

Imomoh's path to overseeing the end of Southland's racing era was an unusual one.

Born in Nigeria and raised in London and Amsterdam, he came to the United States to attend school at the University of Houston. He originally pursued chemical engineering for three years, before changing course into hospitality.

"The math helps being in the gaming industry, but also hospitality was my heart," said Imomoh.

He's been the general manager of Southland for about six months, but has been with Delaware North, its parent company, since 2006.

Back when he was a kid, if he had been told he'd wind up as the GM of a casino in eastern Arkansas, "I would have told you you were crazy," said Imomoh.

But here he was, ushering out the end of six decades of history in West Memphis.

"Anytime that change happens, feelings are tough, but you know that when one door is closing, another door opens," Imomoh said.

"Our goal is to be here and doing more things in the community in the years to come," he added.

Greyhound racing was a staple of Southland since the track originally opened in 1956 as Southland Greyhound Park and was the only gambling venue in the Mid-South.

Thorne remembers nights in the late '70s and early '80s, in the days of the Kennel Club requiring a suit and tie, when 10,000 to 12,000 people crammed onto the property. Cars stretched from behind the track's backstretch to the kennel facility.

"It made West Memphis on the map," Thorne said.

Imomoh estimated 2,600 people would attend Saturday's final day of races.

Three years ago, Southland Casino Racing and the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association reached a pact to gradually phase out live greyhound racing at the West Memphis track by Saturday.

The shift away from dog racing was in part a response to concerns about the treatment of race dogs. Shrinking attentions spans were also a factor. Why wait 11 minutes for another dog race when one can press a button on a slot machine every few seconds?

Southland is the beneficiary, along with Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, of a 2018 state constitutional amendment that allowed the two racetracks to build and operate full-fledged casinos.

Construction of Southland's $320 million hotel expansion project -- including a 20-story building and a 113-square foot gaming floor -- was formally completed Dec. 15. The track will be shut down and Southland will announce future plans later this year. The viewing area will still be used to simulcast events from across the country.

With the phasing out of dog racing, Southland and its Mid-South Greyhound Adoption Option went about trying to find homes for more than 1,000 greyhounds. In May, the demand for dogs resulted in a wait list of up to six months.

After Saturday, there would be only one state left in the country -- West Virginia -- with greyhound racing. Thorne will send some of his dogs to a track there, in Wheeling.

"By Monday, there'll be less than 100 dogs here," Thorne said. "When at one time there were 1,600."

As Smile N Mean It's photo was taken on the frontstretch, tears were shed and hugs were given.

The PA system crackled to life one last time.

The announcer delivered a message, one made famous by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s when Southland was just getting started.

"Good night and good luck."

With the chase over, dog track goes grey to blue | Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (2024)
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