ELMONT, N.Y., SEPT. 21 -- Chrysler Motors has signed a two-year agreement to become the first-ever corporate sponsor of the Triple Crown racing series, it was announced today at Belmont Park.
Announcement of the "Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge" followed complex negotiations among officials of Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, Chrysler and ABC, which, as part of the agreement, will continue to televise each of the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
With a two-year contract option, Chrysler will provide most of the funding to maintain the payoff system initiated this year by Triple Crown Productions, a joint venture of Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association. A Triple Crown winner will earn a total of $5 million; if no horse sweeps the series, the one who earns most points in the three classics (five for first, three for second, one for third) will receive a $1 million bonus. Each race will offer a winning purse of $500,000.
For its support, Chrysler will be "the official car" of the Triple Crown series.
Corporate sponsorship was sought by Triple Crown officials but facilitated by one horse. When 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck bypassed the Preakness to pursue, and ultimately earn, a $1 million bonus in prescribed New Jersey races, Triple Crown officials realized tradition wasn't enough to draw participants.
Three months earlier, Thomas Meeker, president of Triple Crown Productions and Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, warned representatives of the three tracks about becoming complacent. Spend a Buck caused them to act.
"For everyone in the industry, it was like Chicken Little -- the sky is falling," Meeker said. "That spurred us on. And we accomplished exactly what we set out to do.
"This undertaking has the potential of creating more racing fans. Through ABC, we've had increased exposure, and that's where the new fans come from. I've been increasingly concerned about the problem of aging fans and creating a new fan base."
Meeker said the Triple Crown had not sold out to commercialism, saying, "It's been proven that if you create a synergy between all the components of an association like this, everyone comes out ahead.
"The genesis of the Triple Crown Challenge, or at least one of the aspects of it, was that we didn't want to become corporately involved on an individual-race basis. We wanted to maintain the autonomy of the individual races absent from commercial sponsorship, and I think we've achieved that in a very unique way."
The Triple Crown point system provided added drama to last spring's series. Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, earning an opportunity for the $5 million. He not only failed to win the grand prize, he lost the $1 million bonus by a nose when he finished fourth in the Belmont; Bet Twice, second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, won the Belmont.