10/04/2004 12:00AM

NYRA, ABC sign Belmont Stakes deal

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The New York Racing Association has reached an agreement with ABC on exclusive television rights to the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, beginning in 2006, the association and ABC announced on Monday.

The agreement will return the Belmont Stakes to ABC, which broadcast all three races of the Triple Crown from 1986 to 2000. ABC was outbid for the rights to the Triple Crown by NBC, which paid $51.5 million for a five-year deal through 2005.

NYRA negotiated the agreement without its partners in Triple Crown Productions, a company formed by Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course, and NYRA in 1986 to pursue deals for television and sponsorship rights to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. NYRA officials said last week that the association was seeking its own broadcast partner because of dissatisfaction over television revenues.

Under the current deal, Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, receives 50 percent of the television fees, or about $25.75 million, while NYRA and Pimlico each get 25 percent, or about $12.9 million.

Stephen Duncker, the chief operating officer of NYRA, declined on Monday to discuss terms of the agreement with ABC other than to say it covered several years. He characterized the financial terms as being more generous to NYRA than the NBC contract.

NYRA will continue to negotiate with its Triple Crown partners on a sponsorship deal, Duncker said. The current sponsorship contract, a $25 million, five-year agreement with the credit-card company VISA, expires at the end of 2005. Ed Seigenfeld, the executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, declined to comment on the NYRA deal with ABC.

Television ratings for the Triple Crown series have soared during the NBC contract, a four-year span that has included three consecutive but unsuccessful bids for the crown, including bids by the popular horses Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. In the last three years, the television rating for the Belmont Stakes has been higher than the rating for the Kentucky Derby, including an 11.3 rating in 2004 that was the highest-rated television program of the week.

Ratings in non-Triple Crown years have been typically low over the past decade, including a 2.8 in 2000, the last year of ABC's contract. That rating was the lowest for a Belmont Stakes. The average rating for the Belmont Stakes over the four years of the NBC contract has been 8.2, while the average over the final four years of the ABC contract, which also included three unsuccessful bids for the Triple Crown, was 5.0. Each rating point equals approximately 1 million households.

Kevin Sullivan, a spokesman for NBC, said the network would continue to pursue an agreement for the other two races. "This doesn't diminish our interest in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes in any way," Sullivan said. "We look forward to talking to them in the future."

NYRA, whose franchise is awarded by the state legislature, has been under intense pressure from state and federal regulators to improve its financial standing over the past two years. The association is restructuring under the guidance of a court-appointed monitoring firm, Getnick and Getnick, part of an agreement with federal prosecutors to avoid indictment on charges related to tax fraud by employees of NYRA's mutuel department.

ABC is owned by the Disney Corp., which is the parent company of the ESPN family of sports networks. The deal includes distribution rights with ESPN's international outlets.