January 17, 2017

Okla. horse racing industry protests Creek deal

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger said the tribe’s purse fund payments would cease with the end of live racing at Fair Meadows.

TULSA, Okla. – Despite an hour of comments and pleas from members of the horse racing industry, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA) unanimously approved an amended naming rights agreement with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Thursday morning, ending live horse racing at Fair Meadows, a track located on the eastern edge of the fairgrounds.

“We have to consider the big picture and Tulsa County as a whole,” authority member and Tulsa County Commissioner Fred Perry said. “We don’t operate on a big profit margin here. Over the last six years, two of them operated at a loss. In 2011, we had a net income of $124,493.

“This agreement will have an immediate positive impact of about $240,000. As we drop liability insurance for the jockeys and other costs, that will increase our savings.”

On Nov. 1, officials with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation announced the tribe had purchased the naming rights for the Expo Square at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds for $1.44 million through 2019. The original agreement, which was approved unanimously without comment by the TCPFA, included a provision that would end live horse racing at the fairgrounds track.

The amended agreement voted on Thursday dealt with the tribe’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity on the matter, allowing the TCPFA to pursue civil damages in a court of “competent jurisdiction” rather than restricting it to Oklahoma’s Northern Federal district if the agreement is breached or terminated.

The agenda from the meeting in which the agreement was originally approved did not include any mention of the deal’s provision to end live racing at Fair Meadows, prompting calls for a state investigation by Oklahoma Rep. Don Armes (R-Faxon), the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Thoroughbred Racing Association of Oklahoma.

“We have been disappointed in the process by which the naming rights agreement was created and adopted by the board,” Claremore attorney Mark Ramsey said to the authority members. “This meeting today is just window dressing. You have already made up your minds and now your are just trying to correct past errors and show some semblance of deliberation.”

Ramsey, the legal counsel for the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association, said his client’s next move is contingent upon the results of the state’s investigation.

The offices of Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt have not commented on when or if the state’s investigation will begin.

The agreement has also come under fire from horsemen across northeastern Oklahoma for its potential damage to their sport. Under the terms of a gaming compact enacted in 2005 after a state-wide referendum, tribes with at least one gaming facility within 20 miles of a horse racing track are to contribute to the purse fund in exchange for track owners not installing gaming machines at their facilities.

Since 2005, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has paid more than $7 million into the statewide fund, which is split among the state’s three live racing tracks: Fair Meadows, Remington Park in Oklahoma City and Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, Okla.

Under the compact, Fair Meadows received at least $2 million annually from the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee and Osage nations. On Tuesday, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger said the tribe’s purse fund payments would cease with the end of live racing at Fair Meadows.

Tiger has also maintained that the tribe’s interest in the Tulsa County fairgrounds is, first and foremost, with the naming rights for the Expo Center, which, come Jan. 1, 2013, will be the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Center.

“Whatever happens on the other side of the plate is not our fault,” he said at an emergency meeting of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Counsel on Nov. 29. “The Tulsa County Fair Board had something that we were interested in and we went after it. That is all there is to it.”

Tiger and Second Chief Roger Barnett were not at Thursday’s meeting. Tiger’s legal counsel, Yonne Tiger, left during the comments portion and did not address the board.

Despite taking public comments, the board did not entertain any questions from the more than 75 people packed into the conference room at the fairgrounds’ armory annex.

“I’m disappointed that you’re not taking any questions,” said Debbie Schauf, executive director of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Association. “It’s pretty hard to have a dialogue without them.”

Representatives from the horse racing industry have said they plan to continue their fight and will reach out to state and federal officials.

“You don’t have the authority to excuse compact payments,” Ramsey said to the authority members. “So you need to know that anything you do, we are going to ask Gov. Fallin to make it an issue with the National Indian Gaming Commission and go to arbitration if necessary.”

Along with concerns about the end of live racing at Fair Meadows, some attendees also expressed worries about another portion of the authority’s agreement with the Okmulgee-based tribe.

The tribe gets first right through 2015 to propose a new use for the old Drillers Stadium at the northeast corner of the fairgrounds. The former home of Tulsa’s minor league baseball team, the stadium has not been used since the end of the 2009 season and any repurposing efforts would be subject to approval by the Tulsa County Fair Board. Officials with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Tulsa County have repeatedly said there are no plans to put in a casino at 15th and Yale, but a few area residents are skittish about their new neighbors and the potential tax implications from having tribally-owned land in their backyard.

“I want to make sure you know who you are dealing with,” Jim Ganaway said to the authority members. “You’re dealing with a sovereign nation. That means the city, county and state officials don’t have jurisdiction.”