09/30/2004 12:00AM

NYRA seeks own TV deal for the Belmont Stakes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The New York Racing Association is close to signing a television rights deal for the Belmont Stakes that does not include its partner tracks in Triple Crown Productions, the association's chairman said Thursday.

Barry Schwartz, the NYRA chairman, would not disclose which network would broadcast the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, but said the arrangement would be a "much better deal" than the current one with NBC that was negotiated by officials from Triple Crown Productions. Triple Crown Productions, a partnership of NYRA, Churchill Downs, and Pimlico Race Course, is operating under a five-year, $51.5 million deal to televise the three races in the Triple Crown through 2005.

The pending deal threatens to break up a major element of Triple Crown Productions, which was formed in 1986 to jointly market the television and sponsorship rights to the three Triple Crown races, the most popular series in the sport. According to officials, 50 percent of the revenues from the television contract go to Churchill Downs, while NYRA and Pimlico each get 25 percent.

"We've been unhappy with the splits for years," Schwartz said. "The Belmont has evolved into one of the marquee events in racing. We get over 100,000 people, we get better ratings than the Derby, and we didn't think it was fair."

Julie Koenig, a spokeswoman for Churchill Downs, said Churchill would not comment on negotiations for the Triple Crown, citing company policy. Ed Seigenfeld, the executive director of Triple Crown Productions, also declined to comment.

One official close to the negotiations said that NYRA has been speaking with ABC, which broadcast the Kentucky Derby for 25 years and broadcast all three races of the Triple Crown from 1986 to 2000. ABC officials did not return calls for comment.

In 2004, when Smarty Jones attempted to win the Triple Crown, the Nielsen rating for the Belmont was an 11.3, the second-highest-rated sports program of the year at that time, compared with a 7.4 for the Derby. A ratings point represents about 1 million households. In 2003, with Funny Cide attempting to win the Triple Crown, the rating was a 9.5, compared to a 6.4 for the Derby. In 2002, when War Emblem's Triple Crown was on the line, the rating was a 7.6, compared to the Derby's 7.1.

However, ratings for the Belmont have been far lower in years in which no Triple Crown was possible. In 2001, the first year for NBC's coverage, the rating for the Belmont was a 4.5. In 2000, the rating was a 2.8, the lowest ever for the race.

The Triple Crown sponsorship deal with Visa, the credit-card company, also expires at the end of 2005. NYRA is expected to continue to be part of any negotiations over sponsorship of the three races, officials said.

Television officials say that television rights are far more valuable in the long run when negotiated as a package - in this case, all three races in the Triple Crown - instead of individual properties. In addition, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the sport's marketing body, has urged racetracks to jointly market their rights to races, under models in use by every major sports league.

NYRA, which is restructuring as part of a deal with federal prosecutors, is operating under a court-appointed monitor, Getnick and Getnick. The monitoring firm has been heavily involved in NYRA's business affairs, and it recently helped negotiate a deal in which NYRA received a multimillion-dollar up-front fee from Television Games Network.

The Triple Crown races have enjoyed huge increases in ratings under NBC's current contract. Compared to the last four years of the ABC contract, in which there were also three unsuccessful bids for the Triple Crown, ratings for the three races have been up 37 percent. NBC has also broadcast the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships since the event's first running in 1984.

Kevin Sullivan, a spokesman for NBC, said the network will make another bid for the Triple Crown races regardless of Belmont's action.

"We look forward to talking to and working with all the parties involved no matter how it turns out," Sullivan said.

ABC's sister company, ESPN, broadcasts more horse racing programming than any other network. In 2004, ESPN carried 83 hours of live-race programming, according to the NTRA, along with 64 hours of additional horse racing broadcasts.