Choctaw off-track facility threatened Horse track claims tribe cutting its profits


OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - The state and a private horse racing facility threaten the existence of the Choctaw's million dollar, off-track betting facility.

Gov. Frank Keating, in a letter to the Choctaw, said he would cancel the current compact with the state that allows an off-track betting parlor with simulcast from the Blue Ribbon Downs track in Sallisaw, Okla. The Choctaw own the off-track-betting parlor in Pocola, near the Arkansas border and just south of Sallisaw.

The governor said the intent of the threat to close the Choctaw facilities is to initiate negotiations to reword the existing compact. The tribe had violated no laws, he said. Negotiations are under way and the existing compact is to expire April 15.

"I am astounded that Blue Ribbon Downs, a bush-league race track that has never known anything but financial troubles, could have the ability to bring us to this point," said Gregory Pyle, chief of the Choctaw Nation.

Pyle told the governor in a letter that his impression was Blue Ribbon Downs attempted to use the power of the governor's office to shut down competition by closing the Choctaw facilities to create a monopoly.

Gov. Keating admitted his actions to terminate the compact was based on his decision to assist the survival of Blue Ribbon Downs.

"Blue Ribbon Downs is extremely important to Oklahoma's tourism and horse racing industries. I am confident that over the next 30 days we can discuss and resolve these issues in a manner that is fair to both the track and the Choctaw Nation.

"I, therefore, believe it is in everyone's best interest to look at amending the compact ? to clarify the language in the compact to make all parties' rights and obligations more definitive," Gov. Keating said.

Pyle alleges the Choctaw have been fair in their dealings with Blue Ribbon Downs. He said when the state requested the tribe not simulcast certain races, the tribe obliged. When the governor requested time to reflect and study the matter, the tribe, Pyle said, agreed, while the race track company stepped up criticism.

"In hindsight, that now appears to have been a serious error on our part because now we are relegated to playing defense," Pyle said.

The governor's proposal is to change the compact to impose a specific territorial limitation on any new sites that might be added and impose strict regulations with oversight from the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission and apply rules of the Interstate Horse Racing Act. The governor said the tribe had not violated any rules or regulations of the Interstate Horse Racing Act.

It is dependent on these and other terms that a new compact be signed or the threat of cancelation of the existing compact will be carried out.

"This is the worst of all options. We all know it takes months, if not years, to negotiate a compact and obtain legislative approval. In the interim, the Choctaw people and many others in this area will be deprived of millions of dollars in revenue because we will not have any of our off-track wagering businesses during that period," Pyle said.

The Choctaw own off-track wagering facilities in Pocola, McAlester, Durant, Idabel and Hugo.

Tribal officials said the wagering facilities provide $2 million per year to the tribe for health care, education, food distribution and other programs. The Choctaw helped pay for a $26 million hospital in Talihina.

Should the funds dry up, tribal officials claim, the residents of the counties will then have to pick up the tab for the services.

The track General Manager Don Essery claims the tribe's off-track betting and simulcast has reduced numbers of people who go to the track, thus financially hurting horse owners and the track. Horse owners, he claims, lose $33,000 per month and the track itself has lost $58,000 a month. The threat from the track is that it will close if the losses continue.

The Choctaw argue that out-of-state money is brought in and the track owners have provided no hard evidence to prove the off-track wagering owned by the tribe has had an adverse affect on the track's revenues.

"Blue Ribbon has planted a lot of misconceptions. They're worried about the bottom line," Pyle said.

"We felt that we had a right to be there. They've always felt that they should have a monopoly."