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STICKMAN'S STANCE: SOUTHLAND PARK GAMING AND RACING, WEST MEMPHIS and OAKLAWN JOCKEY CLUB, HOT SPRINGS

by Jerry "Stickman"

Jerry "Stickman" is an expert in craps, blackjack, video poker and advantage slot machine play. Frank Scoblete's and Jerry "Stickman's" book "Everything Casino Poker: Get the Edge at Video Poker, Texas Hold'em, Omaha Hi-Lo and Pai Gow Poker" presents dozens of video poker games and strategies for maximum returns. He is a regular contributor to top gaming magazines. You can contact Jerry "Stickman" at stickmanjerry@aol.com.

My articles for the last few months in BJI concentrated on the history of the casinos in the Tunica, MS area. What triggered this series was an article in the local Memphis newspaper which had the headline: "Tunica Woes Good For Southland." I live within about an hour of the Tunica casinos and about a half an hour from Southland. Traditionally, I spent my local "casino time" in the Tunica area, and I had never been to Southland. Over the last few years my trips to Tunica casinos became less and less frequent as the casinos became less and less player friendly. Whether it was lower paying games, reduced comps, or less player friendly crews, all casinos participated to one degree or another to the downturn.

Apparently I was not alone in my disappointment (sometimes bordering on disgust) with the Tunica casinos. This month's article explores two of the largest gaming destinations in Arkansas: Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, AR (directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, TN), and Oaklawn Jockey Club located in Hot Springs, AR, which is about an hour southwest of Little Rock.

Both casinos are paired with animal races. Southland has greyhound racing several days each week throughout the year. Oaklawn has thoroughbred horse racing from January into May each year. While I have never witnessed any live greyhound racing, spending a few hours watching (and occasionally betting) on the horses is a rather enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Now let's examine each casino in more detail, starting with Southland as it is closer to Tunica.

SOUTHLAND PARK GAMING AND RACING - WEST MEMPHIS, AR

A bit of the history of Southland Park will help get a better picture of this property. Southland Park has been in West Memphis for many years. It opened in 1956 as a greyhound racing park. It was originally owned by the Upton family and other individuals. In the 1970's, Southland Park was purchased by Delaware North Companies based in Buffalo, NY. They are still the current owners.

Throughout the 60's, 70's, and into the 80's, Southland Park was considered by many to be the premier dog track in the nation. Typical Saturday nights would have packed parking lots. There would be 20,000 spectators in attendance. Annual dog-track wagers of more than $200 million were the norm. Southland employed 600 people during these times.

In 1992 all that changed. That was the year that riverboat gambling was approved in Tunica County, MS. As the Tunica area grew to ultimately become the third largest gaming destination in the U.S. (after Las Vegas and Atlantic City), Southland fell on hard times. Attendance dropped to an average of about 500 per day. Annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 80's to less than $35 million in the 90's. More than half their employees lost their jobs.

In 2005 the Arkansas General Assembly passed legislation that permitted racing tracks to install games of skill such as blackjack or poker or their video counterparts - if approved by the city or county. The West Memphis residents approved this change by a more than 60 percent majority. In late 2006, a $40 million renovation was started to handle the increased crowds. The renovations included a 55,000 square-foot gaming room, a 65,000 square-foot racing floor, a 400-seat event center, a 150-seat night club, and a 280-seat buffet with three themed cooking areas. The buffet, along with other onsite dining establishments, Quinn and Ella's, the Kennel Club, and Bourbon Street Steakhouse Grill, also made Southland a dining destination.

In 2007, the first full year of the new electronic games, gamblers wagered a total of about $240 million. The total grew to nearly $2.7 billion in 2015. Betting on live greyhound races dropped by about 45 percent in the last 10 years to about $16.4 million in 2015 from $30.2 million in 2006.

The renovation (and new gaming machines) helped Southland Park's attendance grow. The biggest growth spurt, however, came in 2011, when flooding in Mississippi temporarily closed the Tunica area casinos. It was almost as if by providence that Southland Park was given authority to add gaming machines and had undertaken the expansions. The expansions at Southland Park were sufficient to handle the rapid influx of new customers. The new games and amenities were also sufficient to keep many of the former Tunica-area gamblers as permanent Southland Park customers. Southland Park had to boost their staff by 100 people to keep up with the added business.

Southland Park has had two additional expansions, one in 2012 and another in 2014, both driven by the increase in customers that no longer chose to head to the Tunica-area casinos.

Today, Southland Park Gaming and Racing boasts more than 1,900 gaming machines, blackjack, live greyhound racing and a wide range of simulcast thoroughbred and greyhound racing from tracks around the globe.

Upon arriving at Southland Park and entering via the South entrance, I was impressed by the clean atmosphere. The area was bright, clean, and amazingly smoke-free for the number of smoking gamblers present. To the right as I entered was a kiosk where a gambler could enter his or her favorite game and instantly get its location in the casino.

The High-Limit Room was located just beyond the game-locator kiosk. It contained about 30 to 40 $1 to $5 slot machines and no table games.

As I made my way through the rest of the casino, it was easy to see where each successive addition began and ended. The newest was where I entered and was the cleanest and most smoke-free. Heading north, about halfway through, was the next addition, which was still nice but was a bit more worn and had more noticeable smoke residue. The oldest section was on the north end. This is where all the restaurants (with the exception of Sammy Haggar's Red Rocker bar and grill, which is located in the newest section), buffet, and snack bar are located. It is also the oldest looking and smokiest.

Blackjack

The vast majority of the 1,900 games at Southland Park are slot machines. There are also several electronic versions of popular table games, which I will describe later. The only actual table games in the traditional sense were in one pit containing 10 blackjack tables. All of these were SHFL Entertainment's i-Tables.

While many, if not most, of you may be familiar with i-Tables, a brief description of how they work is at the end of the article.

Each table has a live dealer and the general shape and layout of the table is the same as standard blackjack tables. The dealer deals the cards from a shoe just like in the standard game. The main difference is all betting, playing decisions, hand totaling, and payoffs are handled by a screen that is imbedded in the layout at each player position. There are no physical chips used in an i-Table game. Instead, the buy-in is automatically shown on the player screen. To bet, the player touches the proper size chip and drags it to the desired betting circle on the screen. Side bets are also available and are handled by using the player's screen.

The cards are trackable, so as each card is dealt, the screen updates the total for the hand. The player indicates whether to stand, hit, double down, pair split, etc. by touching the screen. Once the outcome of the hand is determined, the payoffs are automatically applied to the winning hands.

The advantage of playing an i-Table is...

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