TULSA — The days of live horse racing at Fair Meadows Racetrack are over.
The Tulsa County fair board voted unanimously last week to approve a lucrative naming-rights deal with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation that not only changes the name of the QuikTrip Center at Expo Square but also includes a provision to cease live racing at the racetrack.
"Certainly we appreciate the fact that they (the tribe) wanted to enter into a long-term relationship with the fairgrounds," said Fair Meadows Race Director Ron Shotts. "This certainly will go a long way to ensure our financial security in the future and allow us to maintain and upkeep all of these wonderful facilities that the citizens have helped us build."
Beginning in January, the tribe will pay the fairgrounds $1.4 million a year to put its name on the 448,400-square-foot event center currently called the QuikTrip Center.
The Tulsa World reports the agreement runs through 2019 but will stay in effect beyond that as long as the state's Indian tribes have a gaming compact with the Remington Park and Will Rogers Downs racetracks in Oklahoma City and Claremore, respectively.
According to the contract, the exposition center will be renamed the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Center.
Since 2007, QuikTrip has been paying more than $200,000 per year for naming rights on the center. That agreement with the fairgrounds will end in December.
The new contract also gives the Creek Nation the first right to propose over the next two years a plan for development of the land now occupied by Drillers Stadium.
Creek Nation Principal Chief George Tiger "and I both are dedicated to establishing a relationship with the city of Tulsa," said Sam Alexander, the tribe's National Council speaker. "The tribe hasn't had one. We intend to do something about that, and this is part of that."
Fair board Chairman Fred Perry said any plans for development of the ballpark, the former home of the Tulsa Drillers, must be approved by the fair board and that the property will not become home to a casino.
Alexander said the tribe is working on plans for the property but provided no specifics.
Shotts said there are no plans to redevelop the racetrack site and that it will continue to be used for parking.
Fair Meadows Racetrack also includes a simulcast facility, which broadcasts live horse races from across the country. Shotts said that facility is scheduled to close in January, but he left open the option that it could stay open as an off-track betting site operated in conjunction with another Oklahoma racetrack.
Live racing at Fair Meadows began in 1989, shortly after live pari-mutuel horse racing became legal in the state. But since then, the live horse racing industry has faced growing competition for gaming dollars, with casinos and online gambling proliferating.
"Since the four casinos began electronic casino-type gaming, our live handle has decreased 95 percent," Shotts said.
At Fair Meadows, the 30-day, 400-race meet — held each June and July — has lost at least $600,000 a year each of the last five years.
Shotts said he expects the number to be closer to $900,000 this year.
"The expenses of the live meet just continue to go up," Shotts said. "Our drug test costs, the costs of jockey insurance — those two items in and of themselves pretty much covered our gross revenue from the live meet.
"We paid two bills and basically started losing money."
The only thing keeping the track afloat has been its agreement with the three Tulsa-area Indian tribes — the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee and Osage nations.
Under the agreement, Fair Meadows receives $2 million a year as long as the racetrack runs 400 live races a year.
The agreement calls for Fair Meadows to receive the money from the tribes in lieu of installing gambling machines at the racetrack that would compete with the tribes' casinos.
With the new deal with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, those 400 live races won't take place, and the fairgrounds won't receive the $2 million a year.
But Shotts said the deal makes sense financially because it provides a steady stream of revenue for the fairgrounds at a time when the racetrack needs thousands of dollars in upkeep and equipment maintenance annually and attendance is down to nearly nothing.
"I doubt if we averaged 400 people a day, and the majority of those were horsemen," Shotts said.
QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh said he respected the fair board's right to run the fairgrounds as it saw fit, but he wondered how the math adds up to benefit the fairgrounds.
"Just by pure glance it appears to be a tremendous loss of revenue, but there may be more to the story than I am aware of," Thornbrugh said.