05/01/2005 11:00PM

Visa in Derby-only deal


Visa USA, the credit-card company, has decided not to renew its sponsorship of the Triple Crown after this year, and has instead signed a five-year sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby with Churchill Downs Inc., the companies announced Monday.

The decision, which Visa officials said was made as part of a change in "marketing strategy" at the company, could imperil a $5 million bonus guaranteed by Visa over the life of its 10-year contract to any horse who sweeps the Triple Crown. Six horses over the past nine years have been in position to win the Triple Crown, but all have lost in the Belmont Stakes.

The step by Visa is the latest in a series of sponsorship and television moves that have disrupted the ability of Triple Crown Productions, a partnership of Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course, and Belmont Park, to market the three races of the Triple Crown collectively. The three tracks formed Triple Crown Productions in 1986 to jointly market the three races, which draw the most television viewers of any horse racing events.

Most notably, last year Belmont Park signed an agreement with ABC television to broadcast the Belmont Stakes beginning in 2006, in a negotiation that did not include its partners in Triple Crown Productions. The current NBC Sports contract to televise all three races of the Triple Crown expires after this year.

As a result of the Belmont deal, all three tracks have now agreed to sign their own television contracts for the races, complicating a sponsor's ability to market the Triple Crown across what could potentially be three different networks. Prior television deals were negotiated by Triple Crown Productions.

Additionally, Belmont Park signed a one-year contract with Argent Mortgage to sponsor the Belmont Stakes on its own, in an agreement similar to Visa's new deal with Churchill Downs.

Ed Seigenfeld, the executive director of Triple Crown Productions, said Monday that the company received advance notice from Visa that the company would not renew its agreement, and that Triple Crown Productions has already begun attempting to identify potential sponsors for the entire series beginning next year.

Seigenfeld called Visa a "terrific sponsor," and he acknowledged that events of the past year will complicate the company's ability to find a sponsor with the enthusiasm of Visa.

"I'm not trying to put a smiley face on this, because I think there are a lot of issues out there," Seigenfeld said. "But at the same time, for the first time in a decade we are going to have the opportunity to put a very valuable sports sponsorship out in the marketplace, and I think that's exciting."

The Visa partnership with Churchill for the Kentucky Derby will begin in 2006 and run through the end of 2010, Visa and Churchill officials said on Monday. The agreements will make Visa the presenting sponsor of the Derby, which annually garners the highest ratings of the three Triple Crown races except some years when a Triple Crown has been possible in the Belmont Stakes.