06/11/2003 12:00AM

Visa irked by jocks bearing ads

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NEW YORK - Officials of Visa, the credit-card company that has sponsored the Triple Crown since 1996, voiced displeasure on Wednesday about jockey sponsorship deals that landed the trademarks of Wrangler jeans and Budweiser beer alongside their own during last Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Loren Hebel-Osborne, a spokeswoman for Visa, repeatedly called the sponsorship deals an "ambush." Representatives of the jockeys and the companies that arranged the deals said that the jockeys were well within their rights to sign the deals, however.

Hebel-Osborne said Visa is not planning on taking any action, but the company has notified officials at Triple Crown Productions - the company formed by Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the New York Racing Association to sell television and sponsorship rights to the Triple Crown races - that they were distressed by the deals, which caught them by surprise.

"We're against ambush marketing," Hebel-Osborne said. "We've made our position known, and that position is that we're not happy about what happened."

Three jockeys - Jerry Bailey, Jose Santos, and Gary Stevens - wore patches on their riding pants in each race on Belmont Stakes Day. Bailey and Stevens wore patches with the brand mark of Wrangler, and Santos wore the Budweiser mark.

Wrangler ended up scoring a marketing coup when Bailey won the Belmont Stakes aboard Empire Maker and then wore a baseball cap bearing the Wrangler logo in the televised winner's circle ceremony after the race. In the same winner's circle was Carl Pascarella, Visa's president.

The Wrangler and Budweiser sponsorship deals were reached by Equisponse and Jockeys Management Group, two new companies that are hoping to capitalize on jockeys' visibility by signing new marketing opportunities for riders.

Kelly Wietsma, the president of Equisponse, said that Bailey and the other riders followed all the regulations concerning advertising on jockeys. She said that Visa did not have a right to dictate to jockeys whether they could sign independent sponsorship contracts.

"[Visa] can't say that they don't want logos on anyone," Wietsma said. "They can't dictate the rules of the sport. Jerry followed all the rules, and honestly, Wrangler and Anheuser-Busch [the parent company of Budweiser] are just ecstatic about this."

Stacy Clifford, a spokeswoman for the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, said that rules passed several years ago allow jockeys to wear advertising on their clothing as long as they receive permission from each owner, the racing secretary, and the state steward. The advertising cannot be offensive, and it cannot be for a product that competes with a race's title sponsor, Clifford said.

"They filled out all the necessary paperwork, and it was signed off on," Clifford said. "We didn't have any problems with it."

In Europe, jockeys regularly wear advertising on their pants, and in many international sports such as soccer, advertising on jerseys is standard. The issue has been touchy in U.S. racing, however.

Hebel-Osborne said that Visa hopes to resolve the issue of advertising during Triple Crown races before the company signs another title sponsorship with Triple Crown Productions. Visa's rights to the Triple Crown, which the company bought for $3 million a year, expire in 2005.

"This is an industry problem, not just for us," she said. "If we want the number of sponsors in racing to grow, then you have to protect what the sponsors have already purchased."

R. J. Kors, the president of Jockeys Management Group, said that he has encountered stiff resistance within some circles to the idea of advertising on jockeys' clothing, but he said that jockeys will not back down.

"The higher-ups and the powers-that-be are not in support of jockeys having any additional financial benefit," Kors said. "But they're just trying to hold back progress."