Visa to End Triple Crown Challenge Sponsorship

In what was described as a change in its marketing strategy for Thoroughbred racing, Visa USA announced Monday it would not renew its 10-year sponsorship of the Visa Triple Crown series, but would focus on a "new partnership with the sport's most venerable race, the grade I Kentucky Derby."

Triple Crown Productions executive director Ed Seigenfeld todl the Associated Press that Visa's decision won't damage the series.

"We're sad to see them go, but Visa has been an unbelievable promoter of our product," Seigenfeld said. "Ten years is a pretty long time. Aside from the dollars they've put in, they've always given us nothing but tremendous support."

He said the series would immediately start looking for a new sponsor.

"We're not going to let the grass grow under our feet," he said.

Since Visa became involved in Thoroughbred racing in 1995, six horses have entered the final leg of the three-race series with a chance to win the $5-million bonus -- Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002), Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998), and Silver Charm (1997) – but failed to win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Under a new five-year partnership between Visa and Churchill Downs effective in 2006, the racetrack will make Visa the only card that enables cardholders to purchase tickets to the Derby.

The partnership allows Visa to further integrate its Visa Signature card into its sponsorship platform and creates exclusive access opportunities for Visa Signature cardholders, according to Visa's announcement.

"We've had an unbelievably successful partnership with the Visa Triple Crown, but we must always work to keep our approach fresh and relevant to our cardholders. This move gives us the ability to strategically position our Visa Signature product alongside the signature event in Thoroughbred racing," said Michael Lynch, senior vice president, Visa USA. "By creating unique new programs like this, we increase the value of Visa Signature cards to cardholders and increase cardholders' loyalty to the Member financial institutions that issue them."

As a sponsor of the Kentucky Derby, Visa said it "will offer member financial institutions substantial pass-through rights to enhance their card marketing efforts, and will also provide Members with a unique offering to grow their business in the affluent consumer segment."

According to the announcement, the partnership will provide Visa Signature cardholders access to a luxurious Finish Line Suite and hard-to-obtain box seats to the Kentucky Derby.

Specifically, Visa will create a limited number of Finish Line Suite trip packages exclusively for Signature cardholders, offering tickets, stable area tours, and access to coveted invitation-only events during horse racing's biggest weekend, according to the announcement.

"Visa USA has been an important partner for U.S. horse racing, and we are very pleased that Visa has chosen to remain a prominent sponsor for our sport's signature event, the Kentucky Derby," said Thomas H. Meeker, president and chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Incorporated. "The Visa name is synonymous with first-class customer service, which makes it the perfect complement to our Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby brands.

Lynch said. "And all of us at Visa are really hoping that this is the year we finally award our $5 million Visa Triple Crown Challenge Bonus."