05/02/2005 11:00PM

NBC keeps Derby, Preakness


NBC Sports has reached an agreement with Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course to broadcast the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes from 2006-2010, the companies announced Tuesday.

The agreement will guarantee a significant presence for Thoroughbred racing on NBC for the next five years, one week after the network declined to bid on a 10-year broadcast package for the Breeders' Cup, which was picked up by the cable sports channel ESPN. NBC had broadcast the Breeders' Cup since its inception in 1984.

NBC currently broadcasts all three races in the Triple Crown, including the Belmont Stakes, but that contract, which was worth $51.5 million, expires at the end of 2005. The Belmont Stakes could not be included in any package for the Triple Crown races after 2005 because the New York Racing Association, which owns and operates Belmont, reached a multi-year agreement last year with ABC to televise the race.

Officials for the networks and tracks declined to disclose financial terms of the deal.

Officials for NBC and the two tracks emphasized during a conference call on Tuesday afternoon that they believed NBC was partly responsible for a dramatic turnaround in ratings for the Triple Crown races beginning in 2001, when NBC took over for ABC. In 2001, the combined ratings for the three Triple Crown races increased 49 percent compared to 2000, when ratings for the races established record lows.

"The ratings history speaks for itself as far as how successful this partnership has been," said Joe De Francis, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico Race Course.

"I'm certainly happy to see partnerships like this continue to work," said Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics.

During the conference call, Ebersol was critical of the decision made by NYRA to sign with ABC, saying that NBC had never been notified of NYRA's negotiations with the network and that NBC regretted not being able to broadcast the Belmont. He called the decision by NYRA "one of the most baffling mysteries I've ever come across in my career."

Before NYRA split from its partners in the Triple Crown, the rights to the three races were marketed jointly by Triple Crown Productions, a partnership of Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont. Under that partnership, Churchill Downs received 50 percent of the revenue from broadcasting and sponsorship deals, with Pimlico and Belmont splitting the remainder.

Over the past three years, the Belmont Stakes has received a higher rating and share then either the Derby or Preakness, but in all three years, a Triple Crown was on the line. NYRA officials said they believed that NYRA was getting less than a fair share of the broadcast revenue from the combined contract.

Triple Crown races on TV

The television rating and share for each race, all broadcast by NBC:

Derby 8.1/217.1/186.4/177.4/18
Preakness 5.6/165.7/145.0/136.1/15
Belmont 4.5/13*7.6/21*9.5/23*11.3/26

* Triple Crown on the line
Note: Each rating point equals about 1 million households. Share represents the percentage of televisions in use tuned to the broadcast.