01/31/2002 1:00AM

Blue Ribbon on rise

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Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Okla., which experienced a 6 percent increase in handle last year following the spring closing of a nearby Native American-run offtrack betting parlor, opens for 84 days of racing Saturday.

The meet will feature Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing, and will be conducted on Saturdays and Sundays this season, a departure from the track's traditional Friday to Sunday schedule. The meet continues through Nov. 24.

Blue Ribbon ended its meet on an upswing last year, with an increase in handle and purses. And it seems the momentum has continued into the new year, as the track reports double-digit gains in simulcast handle and attendance for January over the same month in 2001.

Blue Ribbon, a small country track, will distribute $30,000 a day in purses. Highlights of the stakes schedule include the Grade 1 Blue Ribbon Futurity on March 23, one of the first major races of the year for 2-year-old Quarter Horses, and the Black Gold Futurity series that culminates with the Grade 2 Championship on Nov. 24.

Jockey Debbie Freeman and trainer Rex Brooks, perennial leaders in their divisions, have returned for the new season. They meet a handful of new stables and jockeys in town for the meet because of the lack of a spring Thoroughbred season this year at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Balkan back at Sam Houston

Balkan, who finished fourth as the favorite in the $75,000 Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds on Dec. 31, returns to the site of his biggest career win, Sam Houston Race Park, for Saturday night's $30,000 Bucharest Stakes.

The six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds drew seven colts and geldings, including Front Nine, a two-time stakes winner who had a troubled trip in the Sugar Bowl; Texas Stallion Stakes winner Gone Off, who wheels back in a week after finishing fifth in the $50,000 Mountain Valley at Oaklawn on Jan. 26; and Faxamillion, who appears poised to recapture his best form after several strong works at Sam Houston.

Balkan became a stakes winner two starts ago when he rolled to a powerful 6 1/2-length win in the $50,000 Groovy, which was held at Sam Houston on Dec. 1. In that race, he covered six furlongs in a swift 1:10.60. In his next start, he closed for fourth in the Sugar Bowl, and has since been working well at his home base at Sam Houston.