06/04/2002 12:00AM

Prestige takes precedence over $5M bonus


NEW YORK - When is $5 million almost an afterthought?

When your horse is going for the Triple Crown.

Winning the crown is so rare and so special that owners who go into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to turn the feat say that the last thing on their minds is the $5 million bonus awarded to a Triple Crown winner.

"I'd have to say the bonus was in the back - the very back - of our minds," said Bob Lewis, the owner, along with his wife, Beverly, of two horses who narrowly missed the Triple Crown in the past five years, Silver Charm in 1997 and Charismatic in 1999.

"Our objective was to win the Triple Crown, period," Lewis said. "When you are fortunate enough to get to that level in racing, well, money is really secondary."

So, if the Triple Crown is already so valuable to horse owners, why give the $5 million away?

Ed Seigenfeld, the executive director of Triple Crown Productions, which buys the insurance policy covering the payout, said that the bonus is principally of value to the sponsor of the race series, which buys the signage rights to the bonus but does not pay for the policy underlying it. The Triple Crown's current sponsor is Visa, which has a contract through 2005.

"It gives our sponsor huge visibility," Seigenfeld said. "It's a huge image builder, it gets a great audience, it boosts the television ratings dramatically. You get to say, 'Sponsor of the $5 million Triple Crown.' "

Triple Crown Productions itself was not formed until 1986 - one year after eventual Horse of the Year Spend a Buck ditched the Preakness Stakes for the $1 million Jersey Derby and a $2 million bonus offered by Garden State Park that was linked to a Kentucky Derby victory. The owners of the Triple Crown tracks wanted to make certain that monetary considerations would never again cost the series a superstar and created the $5 million bonus.

Since then, no horse considered a contender for the races has defected for a competing race.

There have been tweaks to the bonus. In 1997, just before Silver Charm went to New York for the Belmont, Lewis was told the $5 million bonus included the purse money won in the three races, meaning the bonus would actually be worth only about $3 million. Lewis asked for a "clarification." He got it. The language was changed to put the $5 million bonus on top of the purses.

There was also a $1 million points bonus, based on finish position, in all the three races. Controversy dogged that system from the start and intensified after Union City and Prairie Bayou fatally broke down during the 1993 Triple Crown amid criticism that sore horses were being campaigned to get the bonus check. Triple Crown Productions and its sponsor at the time, Chrysler, responded by throwing out the points bonus.

Seigenfeld declined to give the cost of the current insurance policy, which is underwritten by Chubb. But the underwriter has made a good investment since no horse has won the Triple Crown in the 16 years since the bonus was implemented.

The dearth of Triple Crown winners has in part allowed Triple Crown Productions to avoid some questions about the bonus that might crop up this year if War Emblem wins.

A 90 percent interest in War Emblem was purchased just before the Kentucky Derby by Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi Arabian prince, with previous owner Russell Reineman retaining a 10 percent share. With his win in the Kentucky Derby, War Emblem earned a $1 million bonus from Sportsman's Park for winning the Illinois Derby and any Triple Crown race, and Reineman has said he is entitled to at least half the bonus.

Seigenfeld guaranteed that there would be no dispute over a $5 million Triple Crown bonus check this year.

"The horse is titled to The Thoroughbred Corp.," Seigenfeld said, referring to Salman's racing stable. "That's who we make the check out to. And nothing would please us more than handing $5 million over to the prince. It's the best publicity Visa could get."