August 22, 2014

Cherokee chief: Racing done at Blue Ribbon Downs

CATOOSA, Okla. (AP) – The Cherokee Nation has no plans to reopen Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw as a racetrack, although the facility could be used as a training track, tribal Chief Chad Smith said.

When the Cherokee Nation bought the track in December, horsemen held a glimmer of hope that the Tahlequah-based tribe might revive racing at Blue Ribbon Downs, which its previous owner, the Choctaw Nation, shut down in November. But Smith said years of financial losses by previous owners indicate that racing at Blue Ribbon Downs isn’t viable.

“We didn’t buy a track. We bought 100 acres that had a track on it,” Smith told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “It wasn’t purchased as an ongoing concern. We bought it for the assets. It has proven over the last two decades, under a whole host of owners, that it just can’t make its way as a racetrack. So we will not be operating it as a track.”

Blue Ribbon Downs began running in the early 1960s and in 1984 became the state’s first track to offer pari-mutuel racing. The track is located in a town of about 8,000 people in far eastern Oklahoma and has a history of financial struggles. State horse racing officials have said the track has lost millions in recent years.

Former owner Race Horses Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 1997, and again in 2002, the latter time after falling into debt with the city of Sallisaw. The Durant-based Choctaw Nation bought Blue Ribbon Downs for $4.25 million in November 2003, one day before the track was to be sold at a sheriff’s auction.

The Choctaw Nation twice tried to sell the track in the last two years and entered into a contract with a potential buyer in May. But that deal fell through and the Choctaws announced in October that the track would close Nov. 28.

According to documents filed with the Sequoyah County Clerk’s office, the Cherokee Nation paid $2.5 million for the property in December. David Stewart, the CEO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, said then that some of the equipment at Blue Ribbon Downs could be utilized at the other racetrack owned by the tribe, Will Rogers Downs in Claremore.

Smith said the tribe is considering different uses for the land, including “allowing it to be a training track.”

There is interest in Sallisaw about ensuring that happens. State Rep. Glen “Bud” Smithson, D-Sallisaw, said Wednesday that he’s not surprised that the track won’t reopen for racing but that “my deal right now is to save it as a training track.” He said he has spoken with officials from Cherokee Nation Entertainment about that possibility.

A prominent Sallisaw horseman, Joel Pierce, said he’s “very interested” in leasing the track from the Cherokees and operating it as a training track. Pierce, who owns a nearby training facility, said the Cherokee Nation asked his group to submit a proposal, which he said has been done.

Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said he couldn’t comment on whether a deal to lease the track is imminent.

Constantin Rieger, the executive director of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission, said most people involved in the state’s equine industry have accepted that Blue Ribbon Downs won’t reopen for racing.

“Now they’re focusing on the racing opportunities they do have,” he said. “That’s what they need to do. ... Things are still relatively healthy in Oklahoma as far as racing is concerned.”

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