01/04/2006 1:00AM

Lack of series sponsor puts Triple Crown bonus on hold

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Triple Crown Productions began accepting nominations to the three races of the Triple Crown on Tuesday, but for the first time in 19 years, the nomination form does not include language promising a $5 million bonus to a horse who sweeps all three races.

The bonus, first implemented in 1987, is in limbo because Triple Crown Productions has not signed an overall sponsor to the three-race series. A previous 10-year sponsorship agreement with Visa USA, the credit-card company, expired last year and was not renewed.

Triple Crown Productions was formed in 1986 and is owned by Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the New York Racing Association, the owners of the three tracks that host the Triple Crown races. For 18 years, the company negotiated sponsor and television packages for the Triple Crown on behalf of all three tracks, but the relationship has become strained over the past two years as the tracks have sought out and signed individual television and sponsorship deals for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

That has made it more difficult to find one sponsor for the series.

Although Visa dropped its overall sponsor package last year, the company signed a five-year deal with Churchill to sponsor the Derby beginning this year. In addition, ABC-TV pays for a presenting sponsorship in the 2006 Belmont Stakes as part of a television package it signed with NYRA. After NYRA reached the Belmont deal with ABC, Churchill and Pimlico reached a separate deal with NBC to televise the Derby and Preakness through 2010.

The Churchill and NYRA contracts have stripped much of the value out of the overall sponsor deal, according to several officials familiar with Triple Crown negotiations, because any overall sponsor would have to share space with the individual sponsors. Pimlico Race Course is also pursuing its own sponsor for the Preakness, according to Joe De Francis, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Ed Seigenfeld, the executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, said Wednesday that the organization is in negotiations with potential sponsors, but he declined to comment on any specifics.

"We're actively pursuing it, and we hope to have a sponsorship in place by the time of the Derby," Seigenfeld said.

Two officials close to the negotiations have said that Triple Crown was close to signing a deal last year with Anheuser-Busch for an overall sponsorship of the series, but the beer maker pulled out in December because of concerns over the value of the package in light of competing individual sponsors for the races. Seigenfeld would not comment on Anheuser-Busch's involvement.

The $5 million bonus was covered by an insurance policy paid by Triple Crown Productions. Funds to pay the premiums for the policy, however, were provided by the overall sponsorship contract. If an overall sponsor is found for the series before the Kentucky Derby, then the bonus could still be attached to the Triple Crown, officials said.

Seigenfeld said that he did not believe the lack of a bonus would have an effect on nominations to the series. Owners must pay $600 by Jan. 21 to nominate a horse to the three races. The nomination fee increases to $6,000 after Jan. 21, with a final deadline of March 25. (Horses can be nominated to the series after March 25 for a $200,000 fee.)

"I can't imagine that people are only running in the Triple Crown for the money," Seigenfeld said. "That's antithetical to what our sport is about. Even without the bonus, you still have a chance to win an awful lot of money."

The Kentucky Derby had its purse raised to $2 million last year. Purses for the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are $1 million each. Provided a horse is not a gelding, however, a win in any of the three races can have multimillion-dollar implications on a horse's breeding value.

The tracks in Triple Crown Productions are not necessarily worse off because of a lack of a title sponsor, according to Steve Duncker, the chairman of NYRA. Duncker said Wednesday that NYRA will make more money this year from its television and sponsor package with ABC than it did under the overall packages negotiated by Triple Crown Productions.

"Even without a Triple Crown sponsor, the revenue to NYRA will be better under these new arrangements," Duncker said. "Having said that, we'd certainly like to have an overall sponsor, and I certainly still think it's a possibility."

Other concerns relate to whether a contract for the Belmont Stakes will be binding on a long-term basis - NYRA's franchise expires at the end of 2007 - and whether the Preakness will remain in Baltimore, officials said.

Magna Entertainment, the majority owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, has lost almost $300 million over the past four years, and Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a supporter of Magna, has said repeatedly that the Preakness may be relocated if legislators do not pass a bill giving the track the right to operate slot machines. Magna's chairman, Frank Stronach, has pledged, however, to keep the Preakness at Pimlico.