Updated on 09/17/2011 10:24PM

Changes put Triple Crown at risk

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WASHINGTON - Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo may not inspire much excitement, but as many as 105,000 people are likely to pack Pimlico on Saturday to watch him try to win the Preakness. The race owes its immense popularity not to the horses but to a force larger than itself: the importance of the Triple Crown series.

In an industry otherwise beset with problems, the Triple Crown's ever-growing popularity is a remarkable phenomenon. This year's Kentucky Derby drew the second-biggest crowd in its history; both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes had record attendance in 2004. The crowds are partly the result of media exposure, and ratings for NBC telecasts in the last few years have been spectacularly good. Extensive advertising by Visa, which sponsors the series, has given the Triple Crown even greater visibility to a mainstream audience. "Visa's sponsorship, together with NBC's promotion of the Triple Crown, is the best thing to happen to horse racing in my lifetime," said Joe De Francis, Pimlico's president.

In view of the tracks' collaborative success, it might seem unimaginable that they would tamper with a winning formula. But relations between the Triple Crown tracks are frayed and their unity fractured. The New York Racing Association has split from Churchill Downs and Pimlico and signed its own television deal for the Belmont Stakes with ESPN and ABC, beginning in 2006. At the same time, Visa is ending is sponsorship of the series.

The three tracks had joined together in 1986 to create Triple Crown Productions and collectively negotiate TV deals. After a long association with ABC, they signed with NBC four years ago - and ratings surged.

"ABC had the Derby for 25 years and hit the doldrums," said Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker. "When we switched to NBC, we had better promotion and it was a great deal for all of us."

With Smarty Jones trying to sweep the series last year, the Belmont Stakes was America's most-watched television program of the week.

Who could be unhappy after such a result? The New York Racing Association was. The deal involving Churchill, Pimlico, and Belmont called for roughly a 50-25-25 split of the revenue from the TV package, reflecting the Derby's preeminent position. The Belmont can be a dud when no horse is going for the Triple Crown, but, after Funny Cide and Smarty Jones generated blockbuster ratings with their bids for a sweep, NYRA wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

"It was obvious we deserved more than 25 percent," said Steve Duncker, NYRA's co-chairman.

Negotiations among the tracks stalled, but when NYRA announced that it had signed its own deal with ESPN, the other tracks were stunned - as was NBC. (An executive called it a "baffling mystery" that NYRA had never negotiated with the network.)

Churchill's Meeker said, "I believe that an over-the-air network, particularly NBC, provides a better opportunity to reach more eyeballs."

Under the terms of NYRA's deal, ESPN buys the distribution rights to the Belmont and televises it on ABC. But what appealed to NYRA, besides the added revenue, were the special benefits of a relationship with ESPN.

"They will be putting things on ESPN Classic, ESPN.com, and ESPN the Magazine," Duncker said. "When the ESPN machine wants to make something a big event, I'm a believer."

The Breeders' Cup is also a believer, having signed a deal with ESPN after 21 years on NBC.

The drawback of putting the Triple Crown on two different networks, of course, is a loss in promotion for the series as a whole. NBC wouldn't have been hyping Smarty Jones's prospects of becoming a Triple Crown winner if the Belmont had been on a different network.

As the TV changes take place, Visa will terminate its sponsorship of the Triple Crown and its guarantee of a $5 million bonus to a horse who wins it. It is unclear if the TV changes affected the decision, but Visa has entered into a promotional deal with the Derby and may also do so with the Preakness. The Triple Crown is looking for a new overall sponsor, but it will be hard-pressed to find such a good one.

"The number of commercials Visa ran in high-profile times amounted to commercials for horse racing," De Francis said. "They were a tremendous boon for the sport."

It is uncertain whether the changes in television and sponsorship will have a significant effect on the Triple Crown. But it is certain that maintaining the event's high profile and popularity is crucial for the entire sport - and not just for three tracks. As the importance of other Thoroughbred races has receded, and even the Breeders' Cup has failed to attract a large audience, the Triple Crown is racing's showcase. It is the one event that can show the public at large that horse racing is still a vibrant and important sport.

(c) 2005, The Washington Post