At its opening in the mid-1950s, Southland Casino Racing was the only gambling venue in the Mid-South region, drawing thousands of visitors from the surrounding cities and states. The track offered pari-mutuel betting, also known as pool betting, a unique form of betting where wagers are placed against other bettors and a pool is shared among the winners. West Memphis was one of only two Arkansas cities to allow pari-mutuel betting, the other being Hot Springs.
Originally owned by the Upton family and other individuals, Southland was purchased by Delaware North Companies, Inc., based in Buffalo, New York, in the early 1970s.
Southland was the premier greyhound race track in the country at its highest point. During the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland saw full parking lots and upwards of 20,000 guests. Annual wagers on the greyhound races frequently exceeded $200 million. Southland employed over 600 people.
Southland fell on hard times in the early 1990s when residents of the nearby Tunica County, Mississippi area approved riverboat gambling, with the stipulation that new casinos had to have at least some portion of their business on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally recognized resort-casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling destination in the country, after Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Southland lost a significant number of guests to these new casinos, seeing daily attendance dropping to about 500. Annual revenues plummeted from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of Southland’s employees lost their jobs.
In 2005, the tides turned once again when the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 1151, allowing race tracks to install “games of skill” like blackjack and poker (and/or their video counterparts) with city or county approval. A majority of more than sixty percent of voters in West Memphis approved permitting such games at Southland, and guests began returning to the facility.
At the end of 2006, Southland underwent a $40 million renovation project to accommodate increasing crowds. The expansion included a new main entrance, a new 55,000 square foot gaming room, a 65,000 square foot racing floor, a 400-seat event center, a 150-seat nightclub and a 280-seat buffet with three themed cooking areas. Three additional on-site restaurants -- Sports Bar & Grill, World Market Bistro and Bourbon Street Steakhouse Grill – added “dining destination” to Southland’s offerings.
Since then, Southland has seen employment and profits almost double the pre-expansion figures. The property has contributed more than $18 million from pari-mutuel racing to public agencies and private, non-profit organizations including the Boys and Girls Club, American Cancer Society, Muscular Dystrophy Association, American Legion, American Heart Association, Crittenden Arts Council and Pathfinders, Inc. Additional revenue goes to award purses, the Arkansas Breeders Awards program, and the Southland Park Community Foundation, which helps fund local scholarships and charities.