Historic Blue Ribbon Downs — once the first, last and only words in the Oklahoma horse racing lexicon — will be enshrined in the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Hall of Fame at 6 p.m. March 4 at the Grand Casino in Shawnee.
“Blue Ribbon Downs was the king, was the king,” says legendary trainer Rex Brooks, who was a fixture at the venerable racetrack from the early 1960s until it closed in 2009 and will also be inducted into the OQHA Hall of Fame.
“This was the training grounds or the proving grounds for racehorses,” Brooks says of BRD. “We’ve had the best horses in the world run here — Easy Jet, was probably the greatest horse to run here. So many superhorses run here, got their start here.
“Blue Ribbon Downs was the first pari-mutuel in Oklahoma. As many as 20,000 people would show up a day for the Blue Ribbon Futurity or the Heritage Futurity. It was the greatest thing, at that time. It was THE racetrack.
“People bring their best horses and best trainers. They’d come in from everywhere — Texas, California, Kansas, Arkansas — bring their best horses and stable there,” Brooks recalls. “I won the Hopes and Dreams Futurity, and the winner got a large amount of mon- ey. The Heritage was the biggest for the rural people to come in. I had the only horse to win the futurity as a 2-year-old and derby as a 3-year-old — Barbs Bounce. You’ve got your toughest competitors of all time in those races, and very few win two.”
What has been called the sport of kings, got its start when Bill Hedge bought 102 acres in 1960 just west of Sallisaw. The track soon became known as a proving ground, and gained recognition from the American Quarter Horse Association in 1963.
Brooks recalls BRD as a match racetrack in 196263, then home to non-parimutuel racing in 1965-84.
In 1982, Oklahoma voters approved pari-mutuel betting, and the first pari-mutuel race at Blue Ribbon Downs occurred Aug. 30, 1984, before 12,000 spectators in sweltering temperatures of more than 100 degrees. In its heyday, BRD was the economic engine that drove Sequoyah County. The advent of legal gambling at the track created a local construction boom with motels, restaurants, and other businesses locating near the track. Virtually every retail business was buoyed by the prosperity BRD attracted.
But BRD did not have a corner on the horse racing market. By 1988, the ballyhooed Remington Park opened in Oklahoma City, and quickly became the preferred destination.
After years of waning attendance and struggling financially with several owners, BRD filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and again in 2002.
BRD was subsequently owned by the Choctaw Nation and then the Cherokee Nation, and the facility was converted to a “racino,” a combination horse racetrack and casino. But the track continued to struggle, and closed permanently after its races on Nov. 28, 2009.
Virtually abandoned since the track closed, the deteriorating grandstands were demolished in June 2022; only the track and barns remain as a training facility.
“Blue Ribbon was never what you call a fast racetrack,:” Brooks says. “I run a lotta horses, set several track records, but track records are like anythin’ else, they’re made to be broken.”