Aerial shot of the Wichita Greyhound Park
Drone aerial footage of the Wichita Greyhound Park in 2018.

When Sedgwick County voted down a proposal to allow slot machines at billionaire Phil Ruffin’s dog racing track in 2007, the Wichita Greyhound Park shut down. For 15 years, it sat dormant while Ruffin tried to bring it back to life in some shape or form. 

He repeatedly — and without success — lobbied the Kansas Legislature to allow him to install slot machines or to put the issue back to a vote with another local referendum.

It seemed he had finally given up when he put the greyhound track up for auction earlier this year, but then the state legislature finally gave him his wish. In a newly passed law to legalize sports betting is a provision to allow 1,000 “historical horse racing machines” on Ruffin’s property. 

Now Phil Ruffin is looking at a future with a greyhound park without greyhounds featuring slot machines that aren’t slots. 

“Try everything…,” Ruffin said in a phone interview with The Wichita Beacon. “You don’t give up. First rule in business, don’t give up.”

Historical horse racing machines look and play like slot machines but instead of randomizing play outcomes, determine winners based on previously run horse races.

Ruffin needs slots because greyhound racing alone wasn’t profitable — and animal rights activists have opposed dog racing for years. Prior to the 2007 vote, Ruffin claimed he had been losing $200,000 a month on the greyhound track and kept it open “only on the possibility that slot machines could reverse its fortunes,” The Wichita Eagle reported in 2008.

Ruffin plans to remodel the property to accommodate the 1,000 machines. He also plans to add 50,000 square feet for a purpose he declined to specify. He predicts the property could reopen in 2023 or 2024. 

“There’s some hurdles we’re trying to solve right now,” Ruffin said. “It won’t be next year…Possibly the year after.” 

He has no plans to bring greyhound racing back, however. 

Despite greyhound racing still being legal in Kansas, no racetracks in the state have a license to do so and the new sports wagering bill went even further by outlawing simulcast wagering on greyhound racing.

“That restriction didn’t have anything to do with Wichita Greyhound Park because they aren’t planning to run dogs,” said Mike O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Kansas Greyhound Association. “All they wanted are these historic horse racing machines.”

The 2022 state legislative session was the first time that Ruffin tried for the historical racing machines.

“We’ve always had opposition from animal rights people that didn’t want us to race live and they were very strong,” Ruffin said. “We tried for many years to get that but we could not. But this historical racing machine, there’s no live racing, and that changed things. The opposition disappeared.”

Earlier this year, the perishable assets of Wichita Greyhound Park were set to go to auction on April 6, but then auctioneer Bud Palmer said he received a call from Phil Ruffin Jr., saying his father had changed his mind and no auction would take place. Later that month, the sports betting bill was passed by the state legislature and sent to the governor, who then signed it into law.

Palmer wasn’t all that surprised. Ruffin has vast real estate holdings in Wichita as well as Las Vegas, where he owns multiple casinos. 

“We went to high school together, I had never ever heard of him selling something after he bought it,” Palmer said. 

Ruffin waged his campaign in Topeka using lobbyists and contributing to lawmakers’ campaign funds. 

Lobbyists hired to advocate for Ruffin’s portfolio of enterprises urged legislators during hearings on sports wagering to allow the electronic gaming machines at racetracks. Since 2018, Ruffin donated over $50,000 to more than 100 candidates seeking public office in Kansas, including 19 state senate candidates and nearly 90 state representative candidates. Ruffin’s lobbyists donated another $4,500 to seven candidates.

His legislative victory, however, is not the end. Ruffin still has to overcome legal hurdles to get the Wichita Greyhound Park up and running, without greyhounds or slot machines.

Soon after the law was signed, Boyd Gaming sued the state of Kansas for breach of contract, claiming that the proximity of the machines to Boyd-managed Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane violated the noncompetition agreement in its casino operation contract with the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for November.

In one of the final hearings on sports wagering before the law was passed, Ruffin’s attorney provided testimony to the legislature specifically to address the likelihood of a lawsuit. The historical horse racing machine provision in the law anticipated litigation. It includes instructions on how to proceed if a lawsuit is filed and a severability clause that protects the rest of the law should the portion allowing the machines be struck down. And it requires the historical horse racing machine facility to pay the state’s court-ordered fees. 

Ruffin is not a direct party to the case and won’t discuss the details, other than to acknowledge there are issues yet to be worked out. The outcome of the lawsuit could determine whether the Wichita Greyhound Park opens its doors back up.

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Marco Schaden is a reporting intern for The Beacon. He is a Columbia University graduate and previously worked as an editor at The Manhasset Press.