02/01/2006 12:00AM

Derby deal less than tasty


ARCADIA, Calif. - The following news item was issued, with a straight face, by Churchill Downs Inc. on Wednesday:

"Churchill Downs racetrack today announced that Yum! Brands Inc., the world's largest restaurant company and parent of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W Restaurants, will become the historic first-ever presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. This year's 132nd renewal of America's greatest horse race on Saturday, May 6, will be referred to as 'the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands.' "

So there it is. America's "greatest horse race" has been branded by a fast-food company. This trumps all other sponsorship deals, at least in terms of visibility, since more people pay attention to the Derby and its trappings than any other event on the racing calendar. If what is promised comes true, it will be impossible to avoid the Yum! Brands logo anywhere and anytime the Kentucky Derby is mentioned, which of course is the general idea.

There is nothing either new or particularly upsetting about the corporate sponsorship of major racing events. There was a Marlboro Cup for many years, pushing cigarettes as a satisfying adjunct to horse racing. Caesars Palace was game enough to sponsor a series of grass races until it dawned on them that racing needed casinos, not the other way around. The Sempra Energy Hollywood Gold Cup looked just fine until the company was sued by the state of California for "Enron-like" price manipulation. And before there was today's plain old Triple Crown, there was a Visa Triple Crown and a Chrysler Triple Crown.

Old-school snobs and hopeless romantics will grouse, accusing Churchill Downs of going totally Nascar while cheapening the purity of a national treasure. They (okay, we) will be labeled as dinosaurs, still living in an idyllic past. And besides, everybody else does it. Why not the Kentucky Derby?

Well, because it's the Kentucky Derby. That's why not. Naive as it might sound, it would be a better world if there were a few institutions immune to such commercial milking.

Since Churchill Downs has only one thing to sell, however, an aberration like "the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands" probably was inevitable. In fact, mass-marketing experts (actually, my cat) point out that with the Yum! Derby deal now in place, the coast is clear for other formerly unassailable racing institutions to follow suit in the mad scramble for sponsorship dollars. In that spirit, it won't be a surprise if any of the following come true:

* Not to be outdone by its more famous Triple Crown Kentucky cousin, the proprietors of the Preakness Stakes today revealed a deal with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to come on board as sole sponsor of the second jewel in the American Triple Crown.

"It will be a revolving kind of sponsorship thing," said Merle Kellog, GSK corporate facilitator. "Whatever's the hot seller, that's what they'll be using in any pre-Preakness advertising, and then they'll slap it on everything in sight the day the race is run. Like, if the race was run this week, they probably would go with 'the Valtrex Preakness' big time."

Among the other GSK products in the Preakness pipeline are Flonase, Zantac, Nicorette, Poligrip, and Contac.

"I just hope I'm still working here when Paxil comes up in the rotation," Kellog added. "The sponsor has promised free samples, and I've pretty much fried right through my Prozac."

* Andrew Beyer, respected racing journalist and inventor of the handicapping speed figures that bear his name, inked a pricey pact today with Ford Motor Co. to commingle the promotion of his figures with the unveiling of the auto maker's 2008 models, accompanied by the marketing slogan, "All Our Beyers Are High."

"We've upstyled and rechristened some of our oh-eights using the iconic Thoroughbreds in the Beyer pantheon," waxed Joel Killgallen, Ford's director of complicity. "The Mustang we won't change, no way. But the Freestar Minivan will become the Easy Goer, the Crown Victoria will be the Formal Gold, and the Thunderbird - what else! - is now the Groovy."

Beyer, speaking through an interpreter, insisted that the Ford deal would have no impact on his relationship with his 10-speed Cinelli racing bike, nicknamed Ghostzapper.

* In a surprise move, The Jockey Club today announced that the entire North American Thoroughbred foal crop of 2007 would be underwritten by Pampers, a division of Procter & Gamble Co., the home and personal products giant.

"It's a natural fit," said Kyle Sufferance, P&G's vice president of corporate proliferation. "We considered the options of outsponsoring one of our other lines - like Scope, Pringles, Noxzema, Old Spice, Metamucil, Head & Shoulders, Pepto-Bismol, or Duracell - but in the end it was clear that the world's best baby diapers deserved such exposure."

Under the terms of the sponsorship agreement, Proctor & Gamble will pay The Jockey Club a $100 premium for each registered foal (there were approximately 37,000 registered foals in 2005). In return, the foals will display the playful Pampers logo.

"The synergy is obvious," Sufferance added, "and it's our plan to take the concept of branding to its logical conclusion. Besides, it's my understanding that they don't even use those old-fashioned branding irons anymore."