A coordinated approach to marketing, sponsorship, and television has served many sports well, including horse racing. Beginning in 1985, when the three Triple Crown host racing associations--Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the New York Racing Association--joined together to form Triple Crown Productions, the series clearly began to benefit and grow.
But the alliance has cracked, resulting this past year in separate television contracts and the loss of a title sponsor. The 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) were televised on NBC, with NYRA negotiating its own deal to broadcast the Belmont (gr. I) on ABC. Gone from the series was Visa, whose racing-based advertising campaign during its tenure as Triple Crown sponsor over the previous decade was a tremendous asset to the sport. Triple Crown Productions has survived, but its role has been minimized by circumstances to that of a clearinghouse for nominating horses to the series.
It should have come as no big surprise, then, that television ratings were down for all three races this year.
TV ratings aren't the only potential problem. Some horsemen appear to be abandoning the Preakness, which leaves the middle jewel at risk. Only three of 20 starters from the 2006 Derby showed up for the Preakness, the smallest number in years. The Belmont was without the winner of the Derby (Barbaro, injured) and Preakness (Bernardini, resting) for the first time since 2000. No horse contested all three races, the first time that's happened since 1983.
Crisis led to the formation of Triple Crown Productions. Spend a Buck, the 1985 Kentucky Derby winner, was lured away from the Preakness by a lucrative bonus scheme in New Jersey. To combat any further threat, the newly formed Triple Crown Productions recruited Chrysler as its first sponsor and created a two-ply bonus platform to keep the series strong.
The first bonus, paid off in the event of a sweep of the Triple Crown, guaranteed the winning owner $5 million in purses and bonus money (later changed by a subsequent sponsor, Visa USA, to a $5-million bonus on top of the purses). The second bonus awarded $1 million to the owner of a horse that earned the most points for competing in all three races.
The $5-million bonus ended in 2005 with the loss of Visa as Triple Crown sponsor. The $1-million bonus was eliminated much earlier, following the 1993 Triple Crown, after a saddened Paul Mellon, owner of Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, accepted a check on the national telecast following the fatal injury to Preakness winner Prairie Bayou in the Belmont. Mellon donated the funds to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and Chrysler followed suit the next year, donating the money to charity rather than offering it as an incentive.
Many applauded the move at the time, fearing some greedy owners or trainers might run for the bonus money while risking the health of their horses. Others, like Maryland Jockey Club executive Joe De Francis, wanted the bonus reinstated after only four Derby starters competed in the 1994 Preakness.
More recently, Todd Pletcher, the two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer who is still looking for his first Triple Crown race win, said there is little incentive to run in the middle jewel. Pletcher, who's started 14 horses in the Derby, has had just one Preakness runner and seven in the Belmont. Purses for the latter two races are $1 million each, compared with the Derby's $2 million in prize money.
Reinstatement of a participation bonus might convince Pletcher and others to give the Preakness more consideration, thereby strengthening the entire series. For that to happen, the three Triple Crown host tracks must recommit toward collaboration.