It was the year a major race sponsorship went from booze to beds. And though the partnership was cut short and lasted only one season, it played at least a small role in getting Thoroughbred racing to think outside the box.
Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale was well-known in racing circles by the time 1998 rolled around. Owner of the Houston-based mega-store Gallery Furniture, McIngvale had raised some eyebrows by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on yearlings at auction.
Earlier in 1998 he bagged Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and moved his horses to Kentucky. The entrepreneur had 16 Triple Crown nominees that year, but none competed in the three events.
In late July McIngvale announced a three-year agreement to sponsor a primary Triple Crown prep, the race formerly known as the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park. After the 1998 edition, the Kentucky-based distiller ended a long and productive sponsorship that began in 1982 when the purse was bumped up to $150,000 from $50,000.
In 1999 the race was named the GalleryFurniture.com Stakes; "dot com" in a race name was hardly customary then. McIngvale was in the process of taking his bricks-and-mortar business online in an attempt to generate sales far beyond the confines of Texas.
McIngvale's advertising company worked the Cincinnati, Ohio-area market for weeks in advance of the race, which carried its highest purse to date that year: $750,000. GalleryFurniture.com banners were draped all over Turfway on race day. There were furniture giveaways, contests on local radio, and sweatshirts to the first 10,000 patrons on the grounds.
ABC-TV even covered the 3-year-old Kentucky Derby (gr. I) prep live during a half-hour broadcast. The winner was Stephen Hilbert's Stephen Got Even, an A.P. Indy colt who went on to finish 14th, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in the Derby, Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) but ended his career the following year with a victory in the grade I Donn Handicap.
Total ad spending on the 1999 event was about $400,000—three times what it had been under Jim Beam. Yes, there were those who found it hokey, if not annoying, but track officials didn't see it that way.
"Mac is a marketer for the new millennium," Damon Thayer said at the time. (Thayer was director of communications at Turfway and now is a member of the Kentucky Senate). "I think our race could set a new standard for what racetracks have to do to keep sponsors and find new ones.
"I don't care what we call (the race) as long as we've got the purse money and the crowd, and help our sponsor sell his product."
For reasons undisclosed, the three-year deal ended before the next running of the race, which reverted to its original name, the Spiral Stakes, for 2000-01. Lane's End Farm took over the title from 2002-10, followed by Vinery (2011-12). Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati is the current sponsor of the grade III stakes (2013-14); its partners own a majority interest in Turfway.
None have been quite as colorful as the GalleryFurniture.com sponsorship. But the Spiral's 3-year-old filly counterpart, the Bourbonette Oaks (gr. III), has attracted intriguing sponsorship interest in recent years.
Fathead, which designs life-size cut-outs, murals, and related items lasted one year—2013—as sponsor of the Bourbonette Oaks, but really wasn't ideal anyway. Whether this year's Oaks sponsor, Pure Romance, is a good fit remains to be seen, but the announcement of the deal generated some interest on Twitter given the company's business of "relationship enhancement."
That, of course, can take many forms, and it wasn't lost on a few Twitter users who asked whether Pure Romance would be handing out "goodie bags" when the Oaks and Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral are run March 22.