History of gambling in Arkansas
For the most part, the history of gambling in Arkansas is a short story. Aside from the state’s affinity for high quality horse racing and (up until recently) watching dogs chase a mechanical animal around a track, there wasn’t much in the way of gambling in the state. However, that has all changed. Arkansas has turned itself around on gambling in a major way since 2005. You’ll find sports betting, casino gambling, poker, DFS, lottery games and horse betting. While many of these options are not available online at present, Arkansas has shown that it has no problem making big changes. Here are the biggest dates in Arkansas gambling history so far.
Oaklawn Park Race Track opens for business to a crowd of 3,000 people. The early days of the track feature six races per day, mirroring the track experience in Great Britain at the time. However, the track opens at a time when betting on racing was in a bit of a gray area for Arkansas. Oaklawn shutters and reopens several times until 1929, when a razor-thin majority of lawmakers finally legalizes pari-mutuel wagering on racing. The first Arkansas Derby takes place in 1936 and quickly becomes one of the richest and most prestigious horse races in the country. Oaklawn’s horse racing is joined by Southland Park’s greyhound racing in 1956, and until 2005, betting on these races is the only way to gamble legally in Arkansas.
Lawmakers expand the gambling options available at the state’s two racing facilities. They pass Act 1151, which authorizes the tracks to offer “electronic games of skill.” The tracks jump on the new opportunity, and Arkansans are able to gamble on slot machines in their home state even before they could buy lottery tickets.
For Arkansas residents, the option to play in a lottery comes three years later. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter campaigned in 2006 on the idea of an Arkansas lottery and applied maximum pressure to make it a reality as soon as he took office. He finally got his wish in 2008 when Proposed Amendment 3 makes it onto the general election ballot. The amendment passes with 62% of the vote and sets the stage for the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. The new lottery funds education scholarships for Arkansans, and has reportedly contributed more than $1 billion to that effort in the years since.
The next gambling expansion to occur in the Natural State is a small one. Act 1075 of the 2017 session makes playing daily fantasy sports legal in Arkansas by declaring that the activity is not gambling under state law. Arkansas is one of only a handful of states to authorize DFS officially under its laws. So long as the contests pertain only to professional matches and games, any site can offer paid fantasy contests inside the state. As gambling expansion goes, it is a minor shift, and does not portend the cataclysm that comes a year and a half later.
Few states can point to a single year as a revolution for their gambling profile, but Arkansas can. Fifty-four percent of Arkansas voters approve Issue 4 on the November ballot, which contains the following:
- Oaklawn and Southland can now offer almost any casino game.
- Two new casinos are authorized for Jefferson and Pope counties.
- Onsite sports betting is legal as part of the expansion.
Less than a year later, the first sports bet in Arkansas history occurs in July 2019 at Oaklawn. Southland would follow a few months later, along with a temporary version of the new Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. The fourth facility, River Valley Casino, remains under construction in Russellville. What a change a few years can make.