Riding a wave of renewed interest in horse racing's Triple Crown off the riveting bids of Smarty Jones this past spring and Funny Cide the year before, the New York Racing Association yesterday announced a two-year deal to televise the Belmont Stakes on ABC beginning in 2006, marking the first time in 19 years the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont will not be shown on the same network.
Unable to resolve what it believed to be an inequitable split in television revenue with Churchill Downs, which hosts the Kentucky Derby, and Magna Entertainment, which runs the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, NYRA chose to make its own deal for the Belmont with ABC, which also will market and distribute the third leg of the Triple Crown series through its numerous ESPN outlets.
The deal, however, threatens to break up one of the few successful partnerships the fractious racing industry has put together in recent years. The sport has struggled to develop a wider audience, and the formation of Triple Crown Productions in 1986 was seen as a way to strengthen its top commodity, jointly marketing television and sponsorship rights.
"We have advocated a more -- not less -- collective approach to marketing the sport," said DG Van Clief, commissioner and chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which has attempted to act as an umbrella organization for the sport's marketing. "If this signals a split away of the Triple Crown tracks not only in media rights but marketing of the Triple Crown as a brand . . . that's bad."
The NTRA, closely aligned with ESPN through the packaging of important stakes races, had no prior knowledge of the deal, Van Clief said.
The Triple Crown next year concludes a five-year, $51.5 million contract with NBC, which will televise the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 30. In that period, the races have been sponsored by Visa for a reported $25 million. Visa offers any winner of the Triple Crown a $5 million bonus.
Visa representatives declined to comment.
Contract talks between the Triple Crown partners broke down after five months, said NYRA Senior Vice President Bill Nader, when NYRA attempted to alter the existing agreement in which Churchill Downs receives approximately 50 percent of the television revenue, while NYRA and Magna Entertainment split the rest.
NYRA has been under pressure to turn its business around. It has been trying to renew its franchise rights with the state to run racing at Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct, which expire in 2007, while operating under a court-appointed monitor as the result of a federal fraud investigation.
Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, a Magna subsidiary, declined to comment, as did Tom Meeker, CEO at Churchill Downs and president of Triple Crown Productions.
In the past few years, Magna and Churchill Downs have been busy buying up racetracks around the country, battling each other for dominance in the sport. With the independent NYRA pulling the Belmont Stakes from the Triple Crown television agreement, both companies will be forced to decide whether to continue to do business with each other.
"It's unfortunate that the Triple Crown is splitting up because it's been the one thing in racing that's worked," said Ray Paulick, editor-in-chief at the Blood-Horse, an industry publication. "I could see . . . Magna trying to put together something tying in the big races at their tracks -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but it would be a great tragedy. Who says they can't move the [date of the] Preakness?"
With the Belmont Stakes coming off its best ratings (a 13.4 share of the U.S. audience watched Smarty Jones's upset loss to Birdstone) since 1981, NYRA decided it was time to go out on its own.
"It was a good financial transaction for us, to maximize the benefits we could secure for the television rights for the Belmont Stakes," said Nader, who declined to reveal the value of the deal with ABC. "Through ESPN's ability to reach a younger audience, we saw a benefit in that."