Blue Ribbon owners in danger of losing race track

Thursday, February 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALLISAW, Okla. (AP) _ City officials could take over Blue Ribbon Downs this month if the race track's owners don't catch up on loan payments, officials said.

The Sallisaw Municipal Trust Authority lent $2.4 million to Race Horses Inc. in 1995 to help with a cash-flow problem. The owners eventually filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in federal bankruptcy court.

The trust recently authorized city attorney John Robert Montgomery to begin foreclosure proceedings. He said Race Horses is about $270,000 behind in loan payments.

The company has until Feb. 25 to bring payments up to date before the foreclosure petition is filed in Sequoyah County District Court.

Montgomery said the track's owners have not paid anything since January 2001.

``The city has bent over backwards to try and work with them,'' he said Wednesday. ``There's only so far you can go.''

The trust said it plans to keep races going at Blue Ribbon Downs _ the state's oldest race track _ even if they foreclose on it.

Blue Ribbon Downs General Manager Don Essary said he is confident the track will survive its latest financial problems, just as it did in the past.

``Our concern is to put the thing behind us and move on,'' Essary said.

He said the track's handle _ the total money bet on races _ is up 61 percent from the same time last year and attendance also has increased.

Last year's handle was about $25 million.

Despite the track's successful year, though, it still has fallen behind financially.

``It just doesn't turn into cash immediately,'' Essary said. ``But, as a result of it, we're optimistic we will be able to continue to race.''

Montgomery isn't so sure.

``I don't know where it's going from here other than foreclosure,'' he said. ``If they can't make payments, I don't know how they can survive.''

Blue Ribbon Downs opened in the 1960s, more than 20 years before voters approved pari-mutuel wagering. The track has 84 live racing days a year, second only to Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Other race tracks have experienced financial problems in recent years. Will Rogers Downs in Claremore shut down its simulcasting facility in October due to its losses.

Essary said the growth of gaming nationwide is hurting race tracks. Many states have begun operating lotteries and off-track facilities in the years since Blue Ribbon Downs, Tulsa's Fair Meadows and other tracks opened for business.

``There's not a track in Oklahoma that's doing well,'' Essary said.