FRONTENAC The dogs are back on the track at Camptown Greyhound Park, the southeast Kansas venue that opened and closed in just five months back in 1995.
Eighty-two greyhounds sped around the 5/16-mile track Wednesday night in the first round of official schooling races, a kind of test run required by the Kansas Racing Commission. Six more schooling sessions are planned before the grand opening set for Aug. 4.
"I think there was a lot of skepticism, and it's not over yet," Camptown general manager Mike Holton said. "Tonight was a pivotal juncture of the reopening of Camptown. It went well. I couldn't really ask for much more."
Located on U.S. Highway 69 just north of Pittsburg, the track has a troubled history that Holton and new marketing director Kent Lepley vow to shake off.
The Kansas Racing Commission first licensed a southeast Kansas dog track in 1988, but four developers couldn't secure financing for what became a $14 million construction project. A fifth, Camptown Greyhound Racing, opened the park in May 1995.
By November 1995, the park estimated it was losing $250,000 a month. It finished its first and only season six weeks early, and the original operators filed for bankruptcy early in 1996.
Two years later, two of the original investors bought the park for a little more than $3 million. They eventually sold it last October to Phil Ruffin, who owns Wichita Greyhound Park and also operates the Frontier Casino in Las Vegas and the Crystal Palace Resort and Casino in the Bahamas.
Holton and Lepley were brought in from Mile High Greyhound Park in Denver, where Holton was director of racing and Lepley the track announcer.
"I'm not tooting our own horns that we know more than the previous regime did about conducting business, but we will market it differently," Lepley said. "We will attend to customer requests and make it a more fun-friendly atmosphere at a better value. That's the thing we're after, a better value for the entertainment value."
That plan includes free parking and free admission. The park also hopes to lower overhead by limiting the racing schedule to weekends and a Wednesday matinee and having Rockin' K Steak and Ribs take over the restaurant portion of the facility. Kitchen equipment and personnel expenses were a major part of Camptown's downfall in 1995.
"I think the biggest change is the atmosphere of this track will be somewhat lighter than that of 1995," Holton said. "It is not full-scale. It has a small home feel."
No wagering is allowed at the schooling sessions, although they provide potential bettors a chance to see greyhounds run in a competitive situation. They also provide an opportunity to let the dogs become familiar with the track and to test the track's computerized timing system in front of KRC judges.
"A lot depended on the first official schooling, including the state's comfort level with how we do things," Holton said. "I was left with the impression that they were just that, very comfortable."
Eleven kennels with more than 450 dogs are expected to participate once racing officially starts.